If you ask someone “what’s your favorite holiday?” you’re sure to get a variety of responses. Some love the festive lights, music, and spirit of Christmas. Others prefer the smells, tastes, and family atmosphere of Thanksgiving. Hanukkah, Easter, New Years, and even Kwanzaa might make the list.
But for me, Halloween will always reign supreme. Why?
Because I missed the first seven Halloweens of my life, and I’m still trying to make up for it.
I didn’t miss out for religious reasons, or because my family objected to the concept of Halloween, or anything like that. Quite simply, in Australia (where I was born and lived until my family moved to the U.S. in 1978), Halloween wasn’t celebrated like it is here in the States. There was no candy, no costumes, no parties, no trick-or-treating, nothing. Over the past decade or so, Halloween has gained more traction in the Land Down Under, but when I grew up there in the 1970s, it simply wasn’t on any kid’s radar.
That all changed when my family moved to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 1978, and I started third grade at Prescott Elementary School. In the very first week of school, kids were already talking about what they were going to be for Halloween. When someone eventually asked me what I was “going to be” for Halloween, I replied “What’s Halloween?”
Had a record player been playing in the background, this is the moment where the needle would have screeched to a halt as the whole room fell awkwardly silent.
It was already enough that I was the new kid, who talked funny, and still didn’t even know the Pledge of Allegiance. But based on the looks of shock and disbelief on the faces of my third grade classmates… I knew I’d taken the whole “foreigner” thing to a whole new level.
When their initial shock wore off, my new classmates began to explain Halloween to me, from the perspective of one third-grader to another.
Try to put yourself in that position. You’re seven years old. You’ve never even heard of Halloween. The original Star Wars has just hit theaters, and it’s quite literally the most awesome thing in your life.
Then, someone tells you that you can dress up and pretend you’re Luke Skywalker, or Han Solo, or C-3PO all day long… on a school day (October 31, 1978 was a Tuesday).
And if that’s not already enough, they go on to tell you there’s a carnival in the school gym after school where such shenanigans as cake-walks, bobbing for apples, raffles, fishing for candy, spook alleys, and prizes for the best costumes take place.
Halloween was sounding pretty bloody amazing in my seven year-old mind. And I had no trouble believing any of it.
Until they told me the last part. What they all claimed was the “best part.”
You know, the part about where you walk up to a door… any door… on any street… in any neighborhood… and knock.
And then the people who live inside in the house… whom you’ve never met before…
While you’re dressed up as Luke Skywalker.
You just sky-walk yourself up to the door, ring the bell, and get candy.
And did I mention it was FREE?
So much free candy, in fact, that you have to carry a bag with you because you get so much of it (a pillow case is apparently recommended).
I was totally fine with the costumes and the party, but the entire concept of Trick-or-Treating was way too much to believe. I honestly remember thinking they were all playing a joke on the new kid with the funny accent.
September turned to October and Halloween 1978 eventually came. As planned, I went to school as Luke Skywalker. I had a light-saber and everything. I fought multiple light-saber battles at recess with kids in Darth Vader masks (I didn’t know they were my Dad at the time… nobody did yet). I hung out in the cafeteria with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, cowboys, witches, Frankenstein, werewolves, aliens, and hobos. Mr. Langley (my third grade teacher) dressed as a clown, with a wig, full make-up, and everything. I don’t know how any school work got done that day. All I remember is a day-long party and hearing “Monster Mash” about a million times.
The Prescott Elementary Halloween carnival was exactly as promised. I won a cake at the cakewalk, bobbed for apples, ate lots of candy, and clapped for my friends in the costume contest finals (I didn’t win that year, but I did “strike back” when I “returned as a Jedi” two years later and won first place as Yoda).
At home, later that afternoon, I began to worry about the whole door knocking thing. I so wanted to believe my friends were telling the truth about Trick-or-Treating. But I couldn’t. I fully expected the first door I knocked on to open with a confused stare, some terse words, and a slam in my face. I mean, why would complete strangers just give away candy? Candy! The most precious resource in the world to a seven year-old boy. My American father assured me my friends were telling the truth, but part of me wondered if maybe he was just in on the joke.
As the sun began to set on All Hallows’ Eve, my parents both grabbed “torches” (those are flashlights for you ‘Muricans) and walked my younger brother and me to the house next door. In my left hand, I held my light-saber. In my right, I clutched the hand-sewn Jack O’Lantern bag my Mum had made for each of us. My parents stopped at the end of the walkway, and told my brother and me to walk up to the door.
My very first Trick-or-Treat door; a pivotal and formative moment in my life.
Still incredulous as to the stories my classmates had told me about what happens vis-à-vis candy in this situation, I glanced back at my Dad, who simply nodded.
Tentatively, I rang the door bell.
I heard voices inside.
I heard someone approach the door.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself against the impending look of disapproval, brief but harsh interrogation as to why I was at their doorstep, and inevitable door slam.
I heard the handle turn.
The door opened.
A tall man towered over us.
The man was… dressed as Frankenstein?
(I know it’s technically Frankenstein’s Monster, but the misnomer was common back then.)
Yes! He was Frankenstein. And he was just standing there – as if he were waiting for me to do something.
Or perhaps… say something?
I knew the magic words my friends had taught me, though I’d never said them before… at least not in an actual “go-time” situation like this.
With our fresh-off-the-plane Aussie accents, we chimed:
“Trick or Treat!”
This next part happened in slow motion.
Frankenstein reached into a bowl on a stool by his front door.
Frankenstein grabbed two Kit-Kat bars.
Two full sized Kit-Kat bars.
And dropped one into each of our outstretched bags.
Words do not exist to describe the feeling that ignites inside the heart of a seven year-old Luke Skywalker when a complete stranger dressed as Frankenstein drops a Kit-Kat bar into his pumpkin bag for the first time.
Christmas spirit? Sure. OK. Santa’s cool, and all that.
Thanksgiving? Hard as it might be to believe, Australians don’t actually celebrate the Wampanoag Indians rescuing the Plymouth colonists from starvation in 1621. And I was still a month away from my first Thanksgiving.
Easter, birthdays, Australia Day, Boxing Day. Yes, they’re all fine and respectable holidays.
But being a seven year-old Luke Skywalker at the height of 1978 Star Wars mania, and going from door, to door, to door, until your pumpkin bag is literally overflowing from candy to the point that you have to eat it as you walk to the next door… that’s pure holiday magic.
A couple hours later, after dumping our booty on the living room rug so Mum could make sure no razor blades, cyanide, needles, or venomous snakes lurked inside the wrappers, and after a few candy swaps based on individual preferences (I’m still not a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup guy), we were free to gorge ourselves on candy.
Apart from the brief safety inspection (which I’m sure my Mum did only because the ladies at church told her it was necessary), my Mum exhibited none of the sissy attributes of overly concerned American mothers who wish to restrict the sugar intake of their children on Halloween and the days that follow. Restraint isn’t exactly an Australian virtue, and that applies to candy for Australian children in the same way that it applies to beer for Australian men. So I ate as much candy as I wanted that night, and the next day, and for two days after that… until it was all gone.
So now, perhaps, you have an inkling of why Halloween, for me, holds a special place in my heart. As the years have progressed, logic might argue that I’ve more than made up for those first seven missed Halloween opportunities.
But there’s nothing logical about magic.
Or Star Wars.
Or taking free candy from strangers.
Which is why Halloween, even decades later, is still my favorite holiday.
Happy Halloween, everyone. 🙂