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Celebrating Halloween in Frightening Times

November 14, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Halloween is my favorite holiday. As a kid I probably would have ranked Santa above jack-o-lanterns, but, as an adult, and especially as a father, I have come to newly, appreciate the significance of this autumnal celebration.

For daughter Zoe and son Adam, now 12 and 9 years of age, talk of Halloween starts in September, just as they settle into the rhythm of school schedules. This year they unpacked boxes of decorations in the basement art studio and secretly planned upgrades for their spooky front-yard scape. Reflecting their growing maturity, they assured my wife, Lori, and me, that putting up Halloween decorations before October 1st was excessive, though quickly realizing that date was a Monday, they decided September 30 was a reasonable alternative.

Adam’s circular, front-yard, flower garden became a creepy graveyard, where dying marigolds were replaced with handmade tombstones, a skeleton figure and sunken shovel. Giant spider webs of fine, silk-like thread material stretched over shrubs and porch railings. A scarecrow — old clothes stuffed with dry leaves from the sugar maples lining the southern edge of our yard — sat in a lawn chair, a straw hat perched on its basketball head. Strings of orange lights outlined the front window and breezeway and, eventually, two carved pumpkins were added to the steps, welcoming visitors at our front door.

Their timely efforts and boundless energy left a full month to create costumes. Zoe decided to be a peacock. She made a shawl from a piece of fabric, to which she hot-glued colorful feathers; cut cardboard wings from a box, which she painted purple, sprinkled with glitter and attached elastic bands for looping around her biceps; and repurposed a feathery mardi gra mask, a relic from Lori’s past, adding both a festive and nostalgic flair to her aesthetically pleasing attire.

Adam’s outfit reflected a decidedly ghoulish motif. He upgraded the full-body skeleton costume he wore last year, by wearing carefully ripped old clothing over the skeleton features and drippling fake blood on the exposed bones and skull-mask. I thwarted his initial plans to add a store-bought, fake battle axe, intoning that it might terrify the preschoolers and kindergartners at his school’s Halloween parade. We settled on a walking staff with a tiny skull mounted on top, a compromise that leaned more to his favor than mine.

A week before the big day, Zoe and Adam confidently shared, with Lori and me, upgrades to their trick-or-treating route, announcing, matter-of-factly, they would be traveling without us this year. That Lori and I would even consider approving their plan, says much about the nature of our neighborhood and community — and my growing appreciation for Halloween.

Roughly one-block from our home, along the main thorough fare that runs through our village, sits a small community park. Each Halloween many hundreds of costumed people of all ages gather, share laughter, snap photos and delight in the scene, more festive than macabre. After nightfall, at the family-friendly hour of 6:00 p.m., local police temporarily close the main street, and a rag shag parade meanders four blocks to the civic center, smiling onlookers lining the route. Eventually the crowd spills into the surrounding neighborhoods where porch lit homes and troves of treats await.

The child in me loves the sense of joy that Halloween brings to children and adults alike, and I’m inspired by Adam’s and Zoe’s creativity and initiative.

For me though, Halloween has come to offer a broader, social narrative, too. When children confidently navigate neighborhoods, march up porch stairs, pound on doors and ring bells, project their voices in a reciprocal exchange — tricks for treats — with strangers, they are actively experiencing and creating a sense of community. And, when adults and children join together, wearing silly or spooky costumes, and stroll through the village center, it’s a joy-filled, intergenerational act of reclaiming public spaces to foster safety and community connection.

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, first published in 2000 and updated in 2012, acclaimed sociologist Robert Putnam observed that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from friends, neighbors and their communities. The book’s title is derived from Putnam’s observation that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased over the years, the number of Americans who participate in bowling leagues — and a long list of other forms of community and civic engagement — has dramatically declined.

Putnam’s insights seem frightfully accurate in our current, politically divisive and perilous times. Still, I am heartened that while nationally we are bowling alone, in our local communities — ours and no doubt many others — we are not trick-or-treating alone. It’s a small but promising sign, and a reminder that creating safe and connected communities is the trick to ensuring the treat we call democracy.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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