Oct 31, 2006

American Halloween

It's Halloween, and the kids are out all over the country. At least, in middle class suburbia, where the houses aren't too far from one another, and people still have some limited degree of trust for the person next-door, although it's hard to reconcile with all the nightmares of moral and psychological depravity that are hidden just behind some of the doors... after all, aren't most serial killers lurking there? And isn't drug use rampant behind door number two? And can you even trust the kids when you know that one of them may be plotting to take to the school in a final Rambo-like blaze of glory?

Anyway, when I was growing up in a small suburban town, Halloween was a pretty big deal. I didn't really get into it the same way as others - my costumes, when I had them, were store-bought and simple. But the candy was a big draw, as was the effort and wish to cover as much ground as I possibly could, and the inevitable fear of going to the "wrong" streets, where adolescents with eggs, shaving cream, and toilet paper made go at one another, the neighbor's car, and everything else. I remember walking home from school the next day, taking specific paths that would take me through the war-torn areas (there was at least one street whose name was synonymous with battles in the lore of my growing up), just so I could survey the damage.

I also remember taking my sister around trick-or-treating when I was older. She wasn't much of a sweet tooth, and was pretty timid while young, so she would dutifully give me most of the candy at the end of the night. But she enjoyed going out. But somehow, I also remember walking with her, and a pair of scissors in my pocket, in the hope that I'd be able to cut a hole in some unsuspecting kid's bag. Ah, the memories. I even remember some of the houses where we'd get the most loot (when I was growing up - there weren't as many kids around the quiet blocks, so people were fairly generous).

Later, I would spend a number of Halloweens in my house with the lights turned off and garden hose primed and ready in case anyone made the unfortunate mistake of targeting my house for a shelling. I never had to use it, happily, but I would have. The thing about Halloween, though, is that even though I didn't have a particularly good one any year that I can remember, we had our small customs and rituals that our family came up with, like the "traditional" meal of frozen ravioli that my mom would have ready for us upon our return. Somehow, we turned Halloween into a small holiday that was just about our little family, extended clan excluded.


Now, living in the city, Halloween seemed like less of a staple autumn activity for the kids. I'm sure there are some things that folks do at home or in school, but with kids' safety in mind, I wonder if they go around much at all. It's sad, really - because in my mind, it was one of the few times that kids are encouraged to step out of the closely guarded world in which they live, where even a neighbor is a stranger with whom you should not speak. Kids finally have the ability to peer into their neighbors' home, if even for a brief second. To know a little of what they normally don't get to see.

And I guess that's what makes Halloween such an interesting celebration for the United States, where personal privacy and the right to be left alone, and the prevailing concept is that "every man's home is his castle" (and he'll take great pains to build the moats and barriers he needs to keep everyone else out). For a few brief hours during this one night, it feels like kids are able to satisfy some of their curiosity, and some communities, at least, feel a little bit closer as many participate in the effort for the benefit of those children.

But what Americans who don't travel will likely not realize is that many places around the world are like that normally - where though they don't have much, the boundary of experience and contact extends for the kids beyond the four walls of their family's dwelling. And it's okay to admonish the neighbor's kid once in a while, because we're in this together, and the kids benefit from the collective knowledge and caring of the community. America, or at least white sub/urban America, has lost this element of community life. And while giving candy to kids for doing a few parlor tricks is not really reaching back into that tradition, it's an interesting throwback, when viewed through this perspective.

I wonder how immigrant families engage with this tradition now - I mean, my parents had their own feelings about it (Mom loves it - she wanted to give $1 per kid this year, to which I replied "you're going to see the same pirates again and again!"), but I know that some folks just don't want to deal with the hassle. I mean, what if the kids looked at them and said "and what are *you* supposed to be?"


Anyway, my favorite Halloween story has to be about a desi friend of mine who grew up in a small town in the MidWest. As a little boy, his parents dressed him up as "Man from India" for Halloween, wearing some of the clothes he had around as his outfit. That was strange enough for the neighbors, I guess.

No comments: