Tuesday, October 30, 2007


It's early, and it's dark. I got out of bed to drive my son to the high school, where he has pre-season basketball practice at 6:00 a.m. every day this week.

Along the way were houses decorated with Halloween lights, including one big ol' Prairie-style stucco with a front yard full of illuminated tombstones, gargoyles, jack o'lanterns, and skeletons. Odd that these things were still glowing at 5:45 in the morning. Christmas lights shining at dawn would inspire me.--something about light in darkness burning through the night, waiting and watching for morning. Halloween, on the other hand, is an invitation to play in the darkness, with whatever frightening spirits might live there. Can a gargoyle with a lightbulb inside give you goosebumps or raise the hair on the back of your neck?

One could rant about Halloween being commercialized, just like Christmas. Halloween has become the second-largest merchandising season in the United States. But it's hard to say exactly what "real meaning" was lost in the process. The Halloween of my childhood was Snickers bars. Butterfingers, and that peanut butter taffy that came in orange and black wrappers. The scare factor was just for fun. We had never heard of the Day of the Dead, and my church back then, All Saints' Day was conflated with Reformation. The origins of Halloween were too medieval for a twentieth century American child to take to heart.

I live just one block away from my suburb's border with Chicago's west side. If the weather is dry, we will see 250 to 300 trick-or-treaters at our door on Halloweeen, many of them from the city. There will be babies in strollers, toddlers who can't quite get up the porch steps, six-, seven- and eight-year-olds in costumes from Walmart, and hosts of teens and even young adults in masks and warm-up suits, or not costumed at all. Some will carry an extra trick-or-treat bag "for my sister who's sick" or "for the baby." Out on the sidewalk, the leaves crunch under the scuffling sneakers of every age group. Inside a nervous dog will be at my knee every time I open the door. Some children will be afraid of her--far more scared than they are of Halloween goblins and ghouls.

It's a holiday about cheap and abundant candy--rolls of Smarties at our house, not Snickers. In many houses on our block, no one will be home on Halloween, or they will not answer the door. Others--and it's the same people every year--choose to be hospitable.

Hospitable--like that illuminated gargoyle. There are enough real things to be frightened of in this world. Tonight we only play at fear.

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