How Halloween Was Saved

Please yell ‘trick or treat,’ neighbors said, so we can see you when you pick up the candy we’ve put outside our door. I wore my daughters’s old hamburger costume and pretended I was a slider to accompany a small tiger, a killer clown, a skeleton warrior, Harry Potter, and the Grim Reaper around our neighborhood. After picking up baggies of candy laid out on tables, spread on blankets atop hedges, and taped to front gates, my young companions yelled, “Thank you!” and “Happy Halloween!” and “Have a good night!” to the people they couldn’t see inside.

Over the past month, the listserv in our neighborhood of row houses, brick Colonials, and wooden farmhouses was alive with questions: would we be doing Halloween? How would houses show they were participating? And would there be any trick-or-treaters this year?

The CDC deemed traditional trick-or-treating high-risk and suggested alternative ways to celebrate — hide Halloween treats around your house, have a virtual costume contest, or do a Halloween movie night with people you live with — they offered.

But it was outdoors, I reasoned, and we would wear masks and it didn’t feel right to give up the beloved nighttime romp, so I told neighbors we would be there. One-way trick-or-treating — where people set up stations with individually bagged treats for kids to take — seemed to be the way to go, even though the CDC still considered this moderately risky.

Two days before Halloween, Luke and I ran up to Target in the rain between lunch and his 1:30 class and found him a skeleton warrior costume. Homerooms were compiling 20-second videos of kids to replace the customary costume parade around the elementary school field, and his phantom costume was too small. For her video, Diana put on the fleece costume her grandmother made and recited the suggested script into the camera, “Hi, my name is Diana and I’m a tiger. Happy Halloween!” Room mothers delivered bags with goodies and games to kids’ houses, and in Microsoft Teams parties on Friday, the kids made popsicle stick werewolves, played Kahoot and Bingo, and ate Pringles and Starbursts together.

I love how Halloween wraps up so much and holds it all — both whimsical and dark, it’s about being yourself and being freed from your usual self. It includes everybody no matter your religion, your background, your color. A holiday for all Americans that takes place on the streets, not in private homes, because it is created together.

Before we went out into the night, we placed the 50-pound pumpkins we had carved that morning and lit their orange insides and jagged smiles with a handful of candles, spread sandwich bags stuffed with Tootsie Pops and Skittles across a table on our front walk, and lit a path of moon-and-stars luminaries. We didn’t have to go out long into the neighborhood landscape of graveyard scenes, singing ghosts, silhouetted window cats, and giant spiders to collect pumpkin bucketfuls of Starburst and Whoppers, Twix and Jolly Ranchers.

There weren’t many other trick-or-treaters, but we passed a muscly little Spiderman, a family of squids, a handful of witches and princesses, and a miniature recycling truck man. The richly packed bags of candy added up so quickly, and we had to stop two times in only 45 minutes to unload.

Seeing the kids dump out their candy on the table and start wowing and trading just like they always had made me feel like everything was going to be all right in the world.

“Oooh, I got a long tootsie roll, I love these!”

“Diana’s the richest one.”

“I had to give away all my Snickers, Milky Ways, and Milk Duds, because of my braces.”

“Oh, Crunch! Crunch bars are good.”

“Is that like the tenth one you’ve eaten? Jesus!”

“Mama, another Reese’s! Do you want this one?”

“Let’s organize them like I’m doing the Skittles.”

“Whoa, wait I have four of the ‘White Mystery’ Airheads?”

“Luke, that one house always gives out Yorks.”

“Are Almond Joys actually that good?”

“Three grape Laffy Taffy’s!”

Halloween was saved. Orange string lights had been hung up, candy was lavishly offered, neighbors waved from windows, and kids got to be something ferocious or scary or magical for a night.

panpilai paipa/Shutterstock

But I missed all the people — the faces I know and those I don’t. The good mood that pervades the air, the way the older generation always wants to see the younger one, the exchange that is made between the sweetness of candy and the sweetness of youth, this renewal of faith — in community, in tradition, in the kindness of strangers.


This year the authorities are saying not to get together for Thanksgiving. In another sign of a world turned upside-down, family celebrations are considered particularly dangerous. Some private schools here have already announced they will be transitioning online after Thanksgiving break because of the peril of people hugging each other. In Europe, where a new set of lockdowns are being enforced in response to a second wave, an infectious disease specialist even suggested postponing Christmas until next summer.

It’s hard to understand whether this virus is a deadly plague or just a new flu and maybe it’s both, but sometimes I just want to say, Are we sure it’s this big of a deal? But then I realize I can say this because I’m healthy and relatively young, and I think it won’t happen to me.

So we continue, wearing our masks, staying home, schooling in bedrooms, staying away from loved ones, meeting people over the strange and wondrous technology that makes it seem like we are not actually that far away.

This pandemic asks us to unite in sacrifice. In this life, there are not many chances to act for the whole, to be part of a grand solution. It’s not easy to hold our breath, to constrain our drives and dreams. And yet it is an honor to be included in a group that does for its members. Isn’t this the longing at the heart of our lonely striving? To feel part of something massive and wonderful? We are. It’s called the human race.

A Paradise Springing Up from Hell

As the yellow sun begins to set in the west, it filters through the leaves of the trees over our kitchen table. We’ve just finished dinner and Mark, 12, says something I don’t think I’ve heard him say before: “Let’s go on a walk!” 

Diana, 6, and Luke, 9, cheer because they know that a walk means a bike ride, and Sofia, 18, and Virginia, 16, look at each other with a silent Thank God, knowing they will have the house and the playlist to themselves.  

“Where should we go, to the park and back?” I say, as we tumble down the porch steps. The park had become our destination during quarantine, a place where the kids could bounce basketballs and throw tennis balls and see dogs playing, but now it’s been chained up.

“No, that’s boring,” Mark says.

“I know where we can go,” I say.

Life has turned upside down, I realize again, as I take them where I used to go when I needed to get away from them — the fancy neighborhood at the top of the hill with the stately stone houses and knife-edged lawns.

Diana on her tiny training-wheel-free bike powers up the hill like a bumblebee, Mark hunches over and leans into his Huffy 10-speed mountain bike, and Luke stands and pushes down on the pedals of his hand-me-down 16-inch. I feel grateful for these bikes that have given them so much pleasure when I have run out of ideas.

With barely any cars on the road, I let them ride down the middle of the streets. They sail, instead of fighting. Swirling around in generous figure eights until I catch up with them. “This is the best biking day ever!” Diana says.

Normally this neighborhood is deserted. When I would come on my meditative walks, the only figures I would see were statues of stone, the only warmth the engines of cars that had just returned from work. Now it’s different.

Earlier this week, Mark had said, “There are so many people walking these days,” noticing the gentle parade of people walking by our house — older couples conversing, teens with dogs on leashes, families with strollers, small groups who pause and ask about our flowers. I tell him it’s because they have nowhere else to go, but he doesn’t seem convinced.

Here in the fancy neighborhood, where there is no foot traffic from the metro or stores, there are people everywhere — couples on walks stopping to chat with friends, a family playing badminton in a traffic circle, teens making videos in alleys, a boy practicing skateboarding stunts on the corner, a man painting a fence.

I have felt crushed under the weight of this quarantine — the shutting down of everything, the relentless fear that we are suffocating not just the virus but all the structures that had held us up.

And yet what freedom to be roaming around this quiet carnival of friendly faces and flowering trees. The sunlight feels like a benediction, and when I think of the people in China who were stuck in their apartments for 70 days, I wonder how anything I have been through could be called suffering. I feel like a king who has all the riches he needs.

As we wind in and around the neighborhood streets, we hear the sounds of a ping-pong ball clocking back and forth, a real piano being played near an open window, and a little boy on a tree swing, who when he sees us says, “People!”

We see people we vaguely know from the elementary school and I am drawn to them like long-lost cousins. We linger to talk about our new lives, their new dog, but must go — the light is turning blue and tomorrow we have online school, but it feels like we are leaving a party early.

On the way home I smell hamburger juice hitting hot charcoals, the chlorine sting of a garden hose, and the purple perfume of magnolia leaves crushing into a carpet. Elaborate chalk drawings look like sidewalk murals offered to anyone passing by, and kids art and teddybears in the windows of the houses we pass seem both a call and an offer of help. 

I see how this spirit of community and creativity is being nurtured by death and suffering, and I don’t know how to hold it all in the same armful.