Many traditions start by accident, and their significance has more to do with surrounding events than the actual behavior. Somehow, these habits intertwine; random activities fuse into a cohesive bundle that becomes an entity onto itself. And so it was with our Halloween celebrations.
It is now time to take you back to the early 1990s when I was a divorced father of one who was on a 2-year hiatus from dating. A self-imposed break based on my experience that relationships were too much work and held the potential for too much pain. I had decided to establish a single life, and to do so with earnest enthusiasm. I bought a two-story Georgian, and with the help of my sister Carol, I decorated it. It was a real home, not a motorcycle poster bachelor pad. I felt happy and at peace during those years. I could do what I wanted when I wanted to do it. I didn’t have to worry about accidentally offending someone. No one was hurting me, and I was hurting no one.
As in most things, there was a flip side to my happiness coin. I recall one Friday night where I was dealing with the agony of stomach flu. “My God, I could die tonight, and no one would know or care until I didn’t show up for work.” It was a sobering thought, but not of sufficient gravity to change my lifestyle. That change would require a random meeting.
As with many of my well-formed plans, my dating hiatus was about to alter. I had met someone at a work meeting, and I was starting to date her. Her name was Julie, and she was leaving her job as clinical director of Mercy’s eating disorder program and transitioning into a Ph.D. candidate at UIC. We had met during her last week at Mercy, and we had quickly become inseparable.
The previous Christmas, my boss, Vince, had given me an enormous gift box from Niemen Marcus. He said the present was a thank you because I had made him so much money that year. The gold-wrapped cube was overflowing with every high-end delectable imaginable. Of note, it also contained a jeroboam of Dom Perignon.
I ate or gave away most of the treats, but I was at a loss about what to do with the Champagne. It sat in my refrigerator.
Then Halloween arrived. I had bought an enormous amount of candy in preparation. Mostly Hershey Bars, Kit Kats, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. To be on the safe side, I also had an emergency bag of penny candy-jaw breakers, candy corn, and the like. I didn’t want to run out of treats and seem cheap to my neighbors, so I had enough candy for two Halloweens.
Julie had agreed to come over to help me answer the door, and in return, I had promised her dinner. I didn’t feel like cooking a meal, and she was agreeable to Chinese carry-out. In those days, we had a decent Chinese restaurant just around the corner. I dialed up “Chan’s Kitchen” and placed an order.
I have to confess that I have little sophistication when it comes to alcohol. However, I knew that Champagne didn’t age well, and my bottle had been sitting in the fridge for nearly a year. I asked Julie if she would like a glass, and she said, “Yes.” Beyond plastic water tumblers, my beverage glassware consisted of a few wine glasses. I put them into service and poured two generous glassfuls. I pushed one of them over to Julie, who was already heavily into the Mongolian Beef.
We toasted “To Us” and quickly downed our first glasses. Champagne is a tricky beverage for the naive and ill-informed. For me, it tasted like a sour grape-flavored soda rather than a high alcohol content beverage. Julie felt similarly. It was easy to drink… and we had so much left in the bottle. I poured another glass, then another.
The doorbell started to ring, and we elected that we would take turns answering the door. It seemed like the kids’ costumes were getting ever cuter with each sip of the Champagne. Soon we were both rushing to greet the costume wearers. I was now distributing handfuls of candy into each pillowcase and plastic pumpkin that was thrust before me. It wasn’t long before I was giving handfuls of candy to the supervising parents that accompanied their charges. Everything and everyone seemed happy and magical… that is until I started to feel dizzy. The dizziness progressed, and I began to feel sick. I had to keep both feet on the floor to prevent the room from spinning. Julie was feeling similarly. Luckily, by then, most of the trick-or-treat merriment had ended.
Despite our mutual sickness, we look back on that day with fondness, and we have used it as a framework on which to build our Halloween traditions. From that point forward, we would celebrate Halloween by passing out candy and eating Chinese food. However, we did exclude Champagne. The remembrance of my post-Dom headache insured that omission.
Our children came, and we had to adjust. I would walk with them, and Julie would pass out candy at home. We would still reflect on the amazing costumes we saw, and we always ate Chinese food for Halloween dinner. That is until this year.
I have written a lot about modifying celebrations during this COVID crisis, and I think I have been successful in doing so for many of these events. However, there was something different about this Halloween. I didn’t want to reformulate the holiday; I wanted to ignore it. I wanted it to be just another day.
Julie said that the City of Naperville had published guidelines for Halloween, and they had a PDF printable poster that could be hung on the door to tell trick-or-treaters that you were not participating this year. I asked Julie how she felt about canceling Halloween, and she was on board, so I printed up the sign and hung it on our front door. Scanning Facebook told me that others were taking a different approach and that they were readying to pass out candy. I started to feel guilty, but that guilt wasn’t enough for me to take down the sign.
At 3 PM, I was sitting in my study’s leather easy chair. Without invitation, Julie came in and sat in my desk chair. Shortly afterward, my daughter Kathryn joined us and perched herself on my old oak rolltop desk. Reflexively, we looked towards the room’s windows and onto the street beyond. The number of kids trick-or-treating was lower, but there was still a significant number of “hunter-gatherers.” Some were solo; some were in surprisingly large groups. Some had masks; others did not. I can’t say what my “roommates” were feeling. I’m unsure of what I was feeling. The best descriptor would be one of being disconnected with an overlay of sadness. I wanted the day to be over.
We had talked about ordering Chinese, but no one made an effort to pick up the phone. Julie and I decided to watch a movie on Netflix, and Kathryn retreated to a book. The day ended.
I’m a proactive person; I am a problem solver. I can be criticized for having too optimistic of an attitude. I can be accused of being too Pollyannaish. I was none of the above this Halloween.
For me, Halloween is the gateway celebration for the winter holidays. This year we will not host Julie’s family for Thanksgiving. We had been celebrating with them for over 27 years. With raging infectivity rates it is possible that we won’t be traveling to Minnesota to celebrate Christmas- a 28-year tradition. I believe that my Halloween apathy is a symptom of the more significant loss of these events and that these losses represent the more significant loss of this last year.
It is difficult for me to be happy when COVID infectivity rates are approaching 100,000 individuals a day, and when our death count is moving past 230,000 human lives. We are in a time when our leaders seem to have a greater ability to name-call than to lead. When it is necessary to hide political beliefs, less you offend someone by just uttering the name of a candidate. When selfishness supplants selflessness and the rule of power for the people has been replaced by a drive for power. Instead of moving towards equality, we seem to re-establish supremacy based on skin color and bank account balances. Instead of joining with other countries to work towards common goals, we choose to insult their leaders. Instead of using our scientific and technical knowledge to move away from planet-killing fossil fuels, we deregulate industries and escalate our eventual climate demise.
Is it any wonder that Halloween had little meaning for me this year? In so many ways, I feel that we have lost more than the year 2020; we have lost a generation of progress by embracing a Lord of the Flies mentality.
Golding published that novel in 1954 when I was one year old. How is it possible that we have moved backward? Why is it that self-serving values seem to trump a sense of community? How can we be so focused on short-term gain and so myopic when it comes to long-term solutions?
Halloween didn’t happen for me this year; Thanksgiving will be altered, Christmas may go missing. I’m willing to mourn these holidays if such grieving somehow fuels movement towards a juster society. My voice is small, but it can become loud if added to a chorus of others. Let us sing together for both ourselves and our children.