Here’s my earliest memory of trick-or-treating: Mom gave me and my siblings each a large cardboard box to decorate with doors, windows, and all the necessary amenities for modern life. Then, dressed in our lovingly-handmade costumes, we each took turns circling the little cardboard neighborhood, carefully traversing the pale blue rug with our candy bags extended.
From within our cardboard houses, we gave each other cough drops and homemade donut holes – cough drops because, in early-90s Bangkok, there wasn’t much other hard candy to be had, and donut holes because my mother thought the cough drop situation was a bit too sad.
My first real trick-or-treating happened in 1995. I was eight, and some well-connected friends of ours managed to smuggle us into the neighborhood across town where all the United States Embassy families lived. Not only did this neighborhood go all-out with Halloween decorations, but diplomatic status gave them access to the commissary—which meant American candy.
We’re talking PopRocks, Hershey Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Skittles, Laffy Taffy, Nerds—everything we could only get over summer vacation. Incredible.
But most of my Halloween fun before age nine happened during the lead-up to the day itself. Teachers at our international school decorated their classrooms with spooky ghosts and paper jack-o-lanterns and spiderwebs made of cotton batting stretched thin. Stories in the library and at home focused on witches and costumes and haunted locales like graveyards, old mansions, and the deep dark woods. Laminated cardstock skeletons appeared, held together at the joints with brads so they could dance and bend and move. I can almost smell the construction paper now.
Mom made us kids whatever costumes we requested—the Tooth Fairy, a bat, a turtle (pictured above), a butterfly. One year I was a gravestone inscribed with the following verse: Here lies the body of Anna / Done to death by a banana / It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low / But the skin of the thing that made her go. I was ecstatic. Mom says making costumes is part of her love language. I can certainly say that looking back on a childhood full of these treasures, her affection was received.
On a day very close to Halloween, the elementary school put on a Halloween costume parade. We all wore our costumes and acquired some small measure of candy. We ate pizza and played Halloween-inspired games in our classrooms. Room moms made us cookies.
So even with our cobbled-together trick-or-treating situation at home, I loved Halloween. Nowadays I look back on the little cardboard neighborhood with only fondness. The cough drops were part of the magic.
Now in adulthood, trick-or-treating feels like an afterthought, though certainly a rite worth observing. I’m much more interested in everything else—wandering the stores looking at decorations, reading scary stories (alone, as a grown-up) and light-hearted spooky tales like “Bloody Fingers” (with my niece and nephew), carving pumpkins, drawing skeletons, and discussing costume options. And I’m pleased to report that Halloween 2019 has been a resounding success.
Early in the month, I got to help my niece and nephew bake sugar cookies that we went on to decorate with my sister’s extensive Halloween sprinkles collection.
I put together an over-involved sugary graveyard scene (pictured a bit below) which sparked an alarming conversation with my four-year-old niece, who, when told that a graveyard was where dead bodies were buried, inquired—calmly—about whether that was the place people’s bodies and heads were placed on popsicle sticks that were then stuck into the ground. We asked her to repeat what she’d said, certain we’d misunderstood. She repeated the horrible description again, this time with hand gestures to match.
As the goth aunt, I immediately wondered if I’d made an entirely too-graphic joke at some point without realizing it. My niece and nephew are too attentive for their own good sometimes. Had I discussed Vlad the Impaler without knowing they were in the room? My sister, for her part, routinely does research into mythology, history, and stories overall, and she wondered if perhaps she’d left some book out where her children could peruse historical woodcuts not meant for innocent eyes.
My niece insisted the popsicle sticks were in a Halloween book my sister had read to them.
Finally, after searching in vain for such a reference, Katrina asked her daughter to show her what she meant. My niece opened one of their Halloween books to this illustration:
She’d used context clues to determine that the image was of a graveyard, and since the headstones in the picture looked like the ends of popsicle sticks (and I gotta admit, they do) she assumed a graveyard involved popsicle sticks stuck into the ground. When I told her that a graveyard was where people were buried, she assumed that meant that dead bodies were somehow affixed to the popsicle sticks and interred vertically. Simple.
By this point, my niece had gathered her inferences were incorrect—but she and my sister had a valuable follow-up conversation about the real situation.
This will forever be a precious family memory. I’m so excited to tease her about this when she’s a teenager.
Then there’s the delight of costume choices.
Pandie was the first to decide what she wanted to be. My niece informed Katrina and me while I was visiting them one day: Pandie wanted to be a pink bat for Halloween.
Well—between us, we had the time, the supplies, and the technical know-how. So darn it, we took an hour, dug around in my sister’s felt and ribbon stash, and made Pandie a pink bat costume. Sometimes it takes very little to make a four-year-old happy.
The kids were much more interested in taking their time considering their costumes.
Meanwhile, there were other things to do: like visiting the local pumpkin patch (apple cider donuts, several species of chicken, a hayride, a discussion about the trouble with worms, and the all-important pumpkin selection), watching gentle Halloween films (like Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest), and carving the afore-mentioned pumpkins into spooky jack-o-lanterns.
My niece selected a bat pattern for her pumpkin. Aunt Crystal did the carving part under her supervision.
The results were perfectly adorable.
We also took an afternoon to draw our skeletons (including Pandie’s) as part of the kids’ homeschool curriculum. Technically this was my six-year-old nephew’s assignment, under Katrina’s instruction, but my niece wanted to participate as well—so after both children had their silhouettes traced, the goth aunt got to draw in one set of bones! The drawings were then taped to the living room walls to join the spooky seasonal decor.
As the day itself drew near, Katrina insisted that the kids decide on their costumes. My nephew diverged from tradition for the first time since he was two, leaving behind his Thomas-the-Train and conductor costume and opting instead to dress as Catboy (leader of the PJ Masks, who, for the uninitiated, are a trio of superheroes who exist as regular schoolchildren by day and become defenders of the night once they’ve put on their evidently-enchanted pajamas).
My niece, who (as I’ve mentioned before) self-identifies as a bunny, decided she wanted to be a bunny rabbit princess in a spooky black dress for Halloween. This idea absolutely tickled me, since when I was nine I dressed as the bunny rabbit tooth fairy (I was the regular tooth fairy when I was eight, then added bunny ears to the ensemble the following year, and I was utterly bewildered when the adults around me didn’t understand my brilliant costume).
I decided to match my costume to my niece’s (with her permission, of course). She even lent me one of her tiaras.
I realized at some point this year that for me, at least, the Halloween season is as involved, as family-oriented, as magical, and as important as the Christmas season. The crafts are different, the focus is different, the lessons are different—but no less crucial, in my opinion, at least.
Throughout our month of activities, the kids piped up with questions about some deeply human topics: talking about their fears, for example, and how they might handle scary situations as they came. What is pretend and what isn’t, and why some people like to put large inflatable Grim Reapers in their yards for Halloween (I assured my niece that these pale-faced, black-clad monstrosities were just giant versions of Aunt Crystal, and they looked scary because someone didn’t do a very good job making them look like me, but they tried, and that was what counted).
As Katrina and I were sewing Pandie’s bat costume, my niece asked out of nowhere, very solemnly, why sometimes if people got really hurt, they died. We never did figure out why she’d thought of this so suddenly. But we explained that your body is like a machine, with lots and lots of parts inside that all work together and that sometimes when a machine breaks, someone can fix the parts that need it—but sometimes, something gets broken in a way where it just can’t be fixed. And you try your best to fix it, of course, but sometimes, well—sometimes it’s just not possible. And if a person’s body gets hurt like that, and one of the important parts won’t work anymore, then they die. She seemed to understand, as much as a four-and-a-half-year-old can—and we scaffolded the discussion with lots of assurances about how most of the time, doctors know what to do. She wasn’t scared. Just curious.
These are important conversations to have, I think. How people are buried and how their graves are marked. What makes us afraid, and how we can cope with fear itself. Having fun with things that are spooky and maybe a little bit weird and gross. Learning that the grown-ups around you will answer tough questions and help you understand the mysterious parts of the world, like what death is, and why your body sometimes decides to have a nosebleed for no reason at all.
And how costumes let us play with identity, our likes and our fears and our developmental stages peering out and igniting our imaginations. My shy nephew in his Catboy costume, dashing around as the super-speedy heroic leader at age six. My niece as her own bunny rabbit self as a princess and decked out in spooky black finery—age four and exploring facets of personality, combining influences into something gloriously chimeric and unique.
And Aunt Crystal in her early 30s, taking her usual elaborate black costume base (which has in past years allowed me to dress as a Victorian ghostie, the Grim “Sweeper”, and more) and adding bunny ears, a fluffy tail, and a tiara to create something cuter and sweeter than usual.
On Halloween itself, I felt like I was accessing my own childhood (delightfully reveling in the old bunny-rabbit-tooth-fairy memories) and showing my support for my niece’s creativity. Maybe she didn’t see it as a supportive thing as much as I did. She seemed much more into the acquisition of candy on the night itself, as did my nephew, who spent much of the evening being told to stop running around so much and being forced to hold hands with either his mother, his aunt, or one of his visiting grandparents (“How come none of the other kids have to?”—sometimes the echoes from my youth are very loud indeed).
But when all was said and done—after the costumes came off, and the candy was put away; after the laughing rounds of Pin the Skull on the Skeleton and Pin the Spider on the Web; after the cookies and the conversations and the cups of cocoa—my feelings were much the same as often accompanies the quiet evening at the end of Christmas Day.
Happiness. Weariness. Exasperation. Hilarity. Love.
What a marvelous batch of memories this October has given me. I can only hope next year is even better.
What are some of your favorite Halloween memories? How was your Halloween this year, and how did it compare to others in the past? Please share in the comments below!