Every family has their special holidays. That one point on the calendar when time stops and everything becomes about celebration. For a glorious decade in our house, October 31st was that day. Halloween was a magical, golden time, with sun-struck blue skies above yellow and red-leafed trees giving way to starlit evenings that carried with them just a hint of the coming cold. It was a time we waited for every year with an almost feverish anticipation that grew greater with each passing month. It was a time my wife and I held on to as tightly as we could, even as the years worked to loosen our grip.
To understand the seriousness of the Brown family Halloween, you have to understand what went into its planning. Costume discussions began in August, early September at the absolute latest, with the first order on the docket being the theme. After much debate, a unified costume motif was agreed upon, but someone in the family would always call an audible, which is how a zombie wound up on our football team, or our Harry Potter assembly featured two Gryffindors, a Death Eater, and Darth Maul.
Once costumes were settled, we moved on to decorations. This was a far more divisive issue. To put it in movie terms, our older son wanted Nightmare on Elm Street, while our youngest was much more Casper the Friendly Ghost. We compromised: The upstairs and outside would be safe for little eyes while trick-or-treaters entered the basement at their own risk.
Our Halloween party was an annual bacchanal that drew kids from around the neighborhood and beyond. One family that moved two towns away still came back each year. In the early days, we supplied pizza and the requisite snacks, but as the years went on, neighbors began bringing their own comestibles, some becoming conversation pieces all on their own. One particularly enterprising partygoer once brought a Jack O’ Lantern stuffed with chips and vomiting guacamole. People didn’t know whether to eat from the pumpkin or take selfies with it.
There were games, too, like donut on a string, which pitted hands-bound revelers against a swinging donut just out of reach. Snag a bite of the donut and win bragging rights for the remainder of the evening. We tried bobbing for apples but found that the conditions of the game wreaked havoc on kids who’d chosen costumes with face paint. Would-be vampires and circus clowns were forced to go trick or treating looking like Edvard Munch paintings. So we switched to the far less damaging apple on a string (the rules were the same as the donut version.) No smeared face paint, and money to boot.
Another favorite game was the toilet paper mummy contest. Kids were broken into teams of two, one wrapper and one wrappee. The team to make the fastest mummy walked away with the W. It was a far better way to use toilet paper than a lot of other revelers chose. Walking out into the neighborhood, you’d see evidence of their handiwork suspended in the branches above us, streaming lazily in the late fall breeze.
The games complete, the kids set about getting to the real business of Halloween night, cleaning out every house of their supply of treats. Plans of attack had been drawn out weeks beforehand, with regular reports coming in as to what house to hit first and which ones were planning on offering “healthy” alternatives or, worse yet, no candy at all. One year, a certain home handed out printed cards with friendly sayings (“Smile! It’s your best facial feature!”). They’re lucky to live in a more civilized time. Had someone in my childhood neighborhood pulled that trick, their house might not have survived the night.
As the kids grew, the games grew with them, changing from year to year. One Halloween, we put together a family-friendly murder mystery, in which every neighborhood kid was a suspect. Another time we sent the kids out into the dark to hunt for a treasure (actually a piece of costume jewelry from Dollar World) that had been buried weeks before. Several houses in the neighborhood were in on the hunt, offering clues and hints to the treasure’s location. One unseasonably warm Halloween, we held an outdoor movie night, tacking a screen to our deck and showing classic monster movies and Halloween cartoons as the kids gathered around a fire.
Unfortunately, for all the magic we were able to make over those wonderful years, the one bit of alchemy we were unable to perform was the slowing down of time. Despite our strictest demands to not grow up, our boys just couldn’t help themselves. Now, our parties have turned to teen-exclusive basement gatherings while my wife and I are left to distribute candy to the next generation of trick-or-treaters, and the only family member in costume these days is the dog. So go big on Halloween. It’s bittersweet, saying farewell to those wonderful, rowdy nights when the house was full of laughter and noise, but we revel in the memories we created and the knowledge that, even though they don’t get dressed up, bob for apples, or go house-to-house anymore, our boys still cite the day as being among their favorite holidays. And while it doesn’t erase the sting of their getting older, it helps.