Smile Politely

Get real with a fake face: Halloween is an excuse to say hi

“Dad, I want feet.” My two-year-old curled her feet up underneath her as I tried to help her into her tennis shoes.

“I know, sweetheart, but we’re going to be walking a lot, and I think you should wear shoes.” Usually, reasoning with this kid yields an agreeable “Okay, Dad,” but not this time. She lunged across our couch and snatched up the plush, yellow feet that would complete her peacock costume. “Want feet!”

Peacockcostume2She was right, of course. No self-respecting peacock would be caught dead in tennis shoes. We stuffed her feet into avian stockings any fashion-forward bird would be proud of, settled her into her too-pink John Deere wagon stuffed with blankets and a candy bucket, and marched out into the neighborhood. It was time to trick-or-treat. (Costume pictured is accurate; baby model is not.)

My wife and I had been looking forward to this for the whole month: our daughters’ first real trick-or-treat, when she would be old enough to knock doors, say the magic words, and get candy dropped into her bucket and understand that this whole tradition is awesome. I was especially excited, I told myself, because this was a fantastic chance to meet our neighbors with an adorably dressed toddler as the perfect icebreaker. As we made our way down the street, we started to get cold feet.

“Their light’s on; does that mean they’re giving out candy?”

“I mean, people forget. Their house doesn’t look very festive… ”

“Where are the other kids? Do you think our neighborhood doesn’t do trick-or-treat?”
We were two minutes away from the house and already thinking about throwing in the towel. Our daughter was riding along in the wagon happy as a clam; she loves walks. Just then, we saw a trick-or-treater, her mom in tow, bounce up to a porch down the block. Courage.

JackolanternWe took a right, south into our neighborhood, and just one street over was teeming with jubilant trick-or-treaters. The first family we met on the sidewalk were dressed up as birds, a whole bird family. My wife and I thought it was amazing and perfectly auspicious; our little peacock didn’t care. She was shy for the first house or two, but when she grasped the whole “say a phrase, get candy” paradigm, she was totally engaged and began shouting, “Yay!” whenever we would stop the wagon in front of the next house.

While our daughter was pilfering our neighbors’ candy dishes, my wife and I were meeting our neighbors, making small talk, learning about the people we share so much space with and know nothing about. It was invigorating.

As we walked up our driveway at the end of the night, my wife and I were laughing at ourselves. It’s supposed to be that easy: it’s trick-or-treat. We had gotten it into our heads that people didn’t want to be bothered anymore, didn’t want to participate, and we have so many distractions anymore that that’s an easy sentiment to believe, and when I went into work the next day, nearly every person I spoke with said, “There just weren’t as many trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood this year.” Maybe that’s because people are taking their kids to trunk-or-treats, which are great events that people view as “safer” than trick-or-treating, even though kids aren’t actually in any more danger on Halloween than on any other day. Maybe it’s because kids are clustering in popular neighborhoods or more well-lit neighborhoods. My streets are pretty dark; ours is an old neighborhood with enormous trees. Whatever the case, hearing it said made me reflect on our night out.

Yeah, we found other trick-or-treaters, and the streets weren’t dead by any means, but it paled in comparison to my own youth. I grew up in a town a tenth of the size of Champaign, and all of the streets were crawling with kids on Halloween. We’d cluster-up in spontaneous door-knocking mobs and line up two wide, six deep at every house. We’d meet up with other groups and trade tips on which houses had the best loot. Maybe we are losing our touch. Maybe we are losing our will to engage our community.

That evening, as we were cleaning up the dinner dishes and our peacock was munching her one allotted piece of candy, I told my wife, “We should have a big neighborhood Halloween party next year.” She blinked, stared at me as she decided whether I was serious.

“I don’t think so, honey.”

She was right, of course. Logistics aside, convincing twenty or thirty families that they should decide to like each other and have a party together is a nonstarter. Still, I’m sitting here wanting more: more engagement with my neighbors, more opportunities to get to know the people I see every day. Halloween gives us a great excuse for that. We put on our worst faces, exchange sugar, and dance off into the night. Our neighbors down the block are prolific gardeners, and they have a corner of their lot dedicated to the neighborhood. Strangers can tromp through and pick what they like from an assortment of well-grown produce and herbs. It’s a great idea that makes people stop and talk and shows caring for the people close by.

I don’t know what my corner garden is, but that’s what I’m looking for. Every time we have an excuse to meet each other, we’re reminded that this community is full of wonderful people. We need to run with that.

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