Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
Part of the problem, quite simply, is that I’ve been at it too long. Because of the number and spacing of my children, this will be my 20th Halloween with at least one child dressing up and trick-or-treating. Anything can lose its luster after 20 years, and small resentments and annoyances have a way of growing big (for example, while I appreciate the tireless and cheerful efforts of Santa Claus, now and then I wouldn’t mind getting a little credit myself).
I don’t have a problem with the holiday itself. Halloween was born out of an ancient Celtic belief that in the night between the lighter part of the year and darker part of the year, the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead was blurred, and spirits could enter. People wore scary costumes to frighten away the evil spirits. The Romans came along and added their own traditions of commemorating the dead and celebrating the harvest, and then the Christians reframed it all as All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day (which is where the name came from—All Hallows Eve). Trick-or-treating actually began in medieval times, when poor people went from door-to-door offering to pray for the dead in exchange for food. So it’s a celebration that goes back thousands of years, deeply rooted in the seasons, the harvest and remembering the dead. I’m okay with that.
What I’m not okay with is what it has become. Like with so many other holidays and traditions, we’ve over-commercialized it and overdone it. Stores are filled with Halloween merchandise by the end of summer, and the lawn decorations are starting to rival anything you see at Christmas. Costumes have become more elaborate, too, and my kids want a new one every year (either store-bought or Really Complicated to Make at Home). This really bugs me, since after so many Halloweens the collection of costumes in our toy room is, shall we say, extensive.
Now there are rules and restrictions [at school parties]: no masks, no weapons, nothing that can be tripped on…basically, all the really cool costumes are eliminated.
It’s all gotten complicated with costumes, too, when it comes to the much-anticipated school parties. Used to be anything would work. Now there are rules and restrictions: no masks, no weapons, nothing that can be tripped on, and it has to be easy to get on and off. Basically, all the really cool costumes are eliminated
And speaking of costumes, shouldn’t kids have to wear one to trick-or-treat? It seems like every year there are more un-costumed middle schoolers in clumps at our door, bags outstretched. They might look different in real life (bathed, or something), but I doubt it.
And the candy. The quantity of candy the kids get every year has moved into the realm of the absurd. Trick-or-treating is no longer about seeing the neighbors and admiring other people’s costumes, it’s about Getting As Much Candy as Possible. Forget little plastic pumpkins or paper bags with handles—pillowcases are necessary to hold it all. With the exception of the holiday days themselves, in our family people are allowed one piece of candy a day. The kids come home with hundreds of pieces of candy. This means that the candy has to be kept in the kitchen and monitored, and someone gets in trouble every year for sneaking some into their bedroom. After a while, on the sly, I start getting rid of it—and there’s always at least one kid who figures that out and gets upset with me. From the moment the candy enters the house, we fight about it. It’s no fun.
So I grump and grouse in Grinch-like fashion. I don’t put up any decorations, I don’t engage in the conversations about costumes, I complain about buying candy, I refuse to dress up. Basically, I just want it to be over.
But like the Whos in Whoville, my family merrily ignores me. They start planning costumes in August. They decorate the windows and dig out the tangled pumpkin lights, which some years even work. They think of ways to scare the people who actually go to the effort of making their way down the long path to our house. They plan the pumpkins, going through several designs on paper before my husband spreads newspaper on the floor and carves the elaborate, intricate faces while the seeds roast in the oven. They watch the weather reports to figure out how to layer under their costumes so that they don’t have to wear a coat. They map out their trick-or-treating routes so as they can be sure to go to the houses that give the best stuff; all routes end at Nana’s house, because she takes pictures and feeds them cookies and lets them pick their favorite candy from her endless bowl. My husband, Mark, plans his costume too—well, actually, he’s a Samurai every year. They have fun, around and despite me.
As I watch them enjoy themselves, it does make me think that maybe, just maybe, Halloween isn’t all bad. Maybe, just maybe, I should give it another chance. I don’t think I’m ready to have a transformational experience like the Grinch did—but I’ll hold off on stealing the Roast Beast.
And you know what Natasha decided to wear this year? A pirate costume from the stash in the toy room. It gives me hope.
Dibs on the candy corn.