Hallowe’en back in our Blighty life meant buying a pumpkin and then carving it. More pressing was the need to stock up on sweets (candy, American people) to get rid of the potential smattering of trick-or-treaters who would half-heartedly bowl up at the door. The general rule was that the more sweets we bought, the fewer the trick-or-treaters we were likely to encounter. If we bought the biggest possible mixed sweet pack on offer at Sainsbury’s and made sure we had several pound coins at the ready for today’s mercenary children, no trick-or-treater would come within a mile of our house. In New York it means so much more.
The build-up starts early. By the second week of September children are eagerly asking others what they are going to dress up as. The options are much more varied here than in Britain, as they are not limited to the spooky or the ghoulish. Yes, there are witches, wizards, skeletons and ghosts, but they are not nearly so common as the much less scary cowboys, cats, fairies, princesses, pirates, bumble bees and assortment of wild animals that children or their parents tend to choose here. Adults dress up too – there is a real family occasion about it all.
In contrast to the no-bounds costume possibilities, there is a more prescribed approach to house decoration. Stoops often boast more than one pumpkin, sometimes intricately carved, and frequently a collection of gourds; garish cobwebs are draped down walls and railings, giant spiders roam across giant webs, cloth ghosts hang from trees, orange pumpkin lanterns are strung across gates and skeletons keep a vigil from front doors. I have even seen life-size ‘corpses’, apparently bound with cobwebs, dangling down from upper floor windows.
In one case, a few streets from our house, Hallowe’en even served as an opportunity for political commentary.
The effort put in is equalled only by the appreciation (and on occasions, terror) engendered in my two young boys, whose appetite for the spooky is insatiable yet unsure of itself. Out trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en evening, my boys loved making their way through the streets, collecting sweets and chocolate from our neighbours standing outside their houses. For an unlimited supply of sweets, both of them could put up with the odd adult dressed up as something frightening. But Littler Boy drew the line at a man who, standing stock still in a front garden surrounded by macabre mannequins, pretended to be one of them but then every so often moved and made some sort of alarming noise. Littler, carrying his candy bucket over his arm, declared the man ‘too scary’ and swiftly moved on to the next house. Scarier still was the way Littler plunged both fists into the pots of sweets being handed out and deposited the bounty in his own bucket before nonchalantly moving on.
While outsiders might be amazed and even disapproving of the fuss made of Hallowe’en here, there is something admirable about how much effort is put in. It feeds off people’s sense of fun and community; instead of switching all the lights off and pretending they’re out when the trick-or-treaters turn up, many Americans seem to relish the opportunity to meet their neighbours and treat the children. There can’t be too much wrong with that.