I grew up on a farm, a mile down the road from the farm where my dad lived as a child. My parents knew everyone “on the mile”: where they went to church, where they worked, whether they had kids. There were a lot of young families like my parents, who’d bought a couple of acres in the midst of farmland, built a ranch-style house, put down sod and planted trees.
Almost no one decorated for Halloween. The holiday was much less about scares, when I was a kid, and more about community. The emphasis was on giving. One farmwife made popcorn balls: carmelized popcorn shaped into balls bigger than a child’s fist and wrapped in cellophane. Because an apple orchard lay farther down the road, homemade candy apples were popular gifts. One neighbor offered a mixing bowl full of pennies and encouraged each child to take a fistful. (This was when you could actually buy two pieces of Bazooka bubblegum for a penny.) Neighbors would invite you in to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate so they could get a good look at your costume.
Halloween seemed magical to me then. The neighborhood was a wonderland of houses with their porch lights on, inviting and friendly. We neighborhood kids traveled in packs, carrying brown paper grocery sacks or pillowcases. Our costumes were homemade and seldom p.c. — hoboes and cowboys and indian princesses, gypsies and soldiers — things made by hand by our mothers or pulled together from our parents’ closets. There were no racks of shiny rayon costumes at the sole grocery store in town.
Because I have such rosy memories of Halloween — before the scares of razorblades in apples and tabs of LSD given out as stickers (neither of which I took seriously until it was MY four-year-old going door-to-door) — it was hard to learn to take my daughter trick-or-treating. We don’t know our neighbors beyond the houses immediately adjacent. Porch lights are resolutely switched off in this neighborhood on Halloween, where the neighbors are more likely to celebrate Dia de los Muertos or Qingming than Halloween. I knew that there were parts of town where parents dumped their kids by the vanload, but I wasn’t interested in being run down in the crush.
The first year we trick-or-treated only from the nurses in the hospice where my great aunt lay dying. The year my daughter was three, we only begged from places I shopped at on West Portal Avenue. We tried Potrero Hill the following year, but the neighbors were so besieged that they’d grown surly. Some just left bowls of candy on their steps and retreated, so they didn’t have to interact with the children at all.
The year my daughter was five, we hit the jackpot. The neighbors of St. Francis Wood compete with each other, turning their yards into Oz, complete with Dorothy’s house atop the witch, or setting up a life-sized pirate ship, captained by a skeleton. Kids and adults all seemed to have a good time. The man doling out chocolate body parts particularly impressed my daughter. He gave her a blue eye because she was “such a pretty princess” in her Glinda dress.
After that, we spent a couple of years braving the Halloween crush on a blocked-off street dedicated to Halloween, because one of the families in her grade always hosted a Halloween party before the kids went out to trick-or-treat together. Those excursions have been among the most magical nights of my daughter’s life, trading candy with the other kids. I always looked forward to recapturing the sense of community I felt as a child. It’s strange that I had to move beyond the neighborhood where we live to do it.
As far as I’m concerned, Halloween is still the best holiday of the year, even if it isn’t homemade any more. Halloween is the one holiday dedicated to imagination, whether you’re Tigger or Tinkerbelle or the Chief Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine. You have the freedom to become someone else without losing yourself. At the same time, Halloween is about being scared while you’re safe. Despite checking all our candy for tampering year after year, I haven’t found anything questionable yet. For me, the holiday has been about learning to trust in the essential goodness of strangers and about practicing your manners by saying thank you. The community may no longer be on a first-name basis, but to my surprise, it’s still as generous and kind.