When I was growing up, Halloween traditions took a nose dive, shot down by fears (now known to have been exaggerated) of tainted candy, rampant abductions, and Satanic killings. And trick-or-treating in the mall or the community center most certainly was not as good as the Real Thing. So when my own child came into the world, I determined to give him Halloween as it should be: a family holiday that encompasses the community. Here are my family’s top ten, never miss ’em, Halloween traditions:
- Real Pumpkin Picking. Rather than choose a pumpkin from the local grocery store, we visit a local pumpkin farmer. Pumpkins should begin their jack-o-lantern journey by being hefted into the arms of a grinning family member and carried across a vine-stubbled field. My son beamed with pride the year he was strong enough to carry our huge centerpiece pumpkin. Some pumpkin farmers provide additional festivities for the family, everything from hayrides to hot cocoa, so plan to enjoy yourself!
- De-Sliming the Pumpkin. It’s tempting to send the kids into the other room while Mom and Dad perform the less appetizing task of scooping seeds and slime from inside the pumpkin. But there is no fun in it! From the time my son was two, we viewed playing with pumpkin guts the best start to the Spooky Season. After that ordeal, carving the pumpkin is easy!
- Spooki-fying the Great Outdoors. We are most certainly NOT the family with the biggest and baddest haunted house in the neighborhood. But we’re the family that has the best time stretching spider webs from bush to tree to porch, hanging bats from branches and eaves, and stuffing straw into old shirts and trousers to create scarecrows. The end result is an inviting mix of old-fashioned Halloween decor and present-day kid enthusiasm.
- Homemade Costumes. Not everyone in the household gets — or wants! — a homemade costume. But at least one person, or pet, dresses up in a costume created by the family’s own hands. Creating a costume stimulates a child’s imagination and gives us parents great enjoyment, even if the dog only wears his Cowardly Lion mane for five minutes before gnawing through the yarn.
- Grown-ups Must Costume, Too. No one in our home escapes playing dress up, even if the costume consists of little more than a flowing scarf tied around the waist of an average dress and a pair of over-sized hoop earrings to create a Gypsy. A costume gives the person permission to smile more easily, laugh more richly, and feel more deeply. No wonder children love Halloween!
- Pillowcases. Forget little plastic pumpkins. Real trick-or-treating is done with a cloth sack, and pillowcases are ideal for the five-and-up crowd. Kids love to sling the loot bag over their shoulder as they trek from house to house. It simply feels like more candy when it’s in a sack.
- Caramel Apples and Popcorn. We make our caramel from scratch. Basic recipes are easy to find, and it’s far easier to make your own caramel than you might think! Rather than dip whole apples, we cut them into wedges for dipping, and provide added toppings like mini chocolate chips, nuts, and sprinkles. The apples provide a little bit of healthy eating in the midst of Candy Heaven and, along with the low-calorie popcorn, give parents a low-guilt snacking option of their own. Which leads me to…
- Open Door Policy. Unless it’s unseasonably cold, our front door stays open until the last trick-or-treater goes home. After all, we have all those apples, all that caramel, and piles of popcorn to share! Our home has become the Base of Operations for many families in the neighborhood. We parents work in shifts — some accompanying the kids on their rounds, some manning their own front doors, and the rest of us making sure the apples and popcorn are eaten, and the spiced cider kept hot. The kids pop in and out, taking a break from candy-gathering to slurp down some cider and deliver bright-eyed reports about neighborhood costumes, decorations, and the antics of their friends. It’s both festive and relaxing, a social gathering that lacks all the pressure and expectations of the winter holidays, and our family looks forward to it every year.
- Looking for the Last Light. After all the fun, it’s tough to bring it to an end. Sadly, many communities have opted to decree an official end to trick-or-treating rather than rely on the traditional turned-off porch light. So when that time approaches, and the kids begin the annual “Just one more house!” begging, I make sure our porch light is lit. After all, Halloween is the one night of the year when all your friends and neighbors roam the streets around home. It shouldn’t be brought to an early end for the sake of mere convenience.
- Crash On the Floor. Once all the kids and parents have gone home, and all the treat bowls are empty, our family flops down on the living room floor to examine the loot. While some parents choose to make this a frightening exercise, telling the child not to touch anything for fear of poison, we opt for a more relaxed approach. Of course we look over the candy, but we do so with smiles and jokes, and while sharing a few chosen pieces of candy. My son thinks of this tradition as the time to share the night’s stories — as it should be — rather than a ritual born of fear. A child’s Halloween, spooky as it can be, should never be tainted with parental fears.
What do all of our traditions have in common? They exist only because we have family and friends to share them with. While Halloween is a time of haunted houses, ghost stories, and bump-in-the-night frights, it can also be a time to build your community by introducing the neighborhood to family-based traditions that invite others to join in.