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Everyone remembers his or her first time trick-or-treating, getting candy from strangers, and wearing costumes. I know I remember my first time. Mostly because I was 18.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I always knew what Halloween was: It was the week when television seemed to switch over to an “every night is Fright Night/Shocktober” format, all the candy in the supermarkets switched over to a fall color palate, and packages suddenly sported ghosts, witches, and corpses, which were very appetizing. And it was the week when my yeshiva (Jewish religious school) sent home a letter to parents informing them that since Halloween was a pagan holiday that had become a fulcrum for mischief and destructive pranks–sometimes of an anti-Semitic nature–it was highly advised that we not be permitted to participate in any of the celebrations.
The only way Halloween made a real impact was the constant ringing of our doorbell, as trick-or-treaters made their way down the block. My brothers and I would open the door and distribute candy to the costumed kids, occasionally pocketing a piece of candy for ourselves, and never whining to my parents to let us participate. It wasn’t our faith. It wasn’t our holiday.
After high school graduation, I went to college, and as October waned, people started talking about Halloween–instead of door-to-door candy collecting, there were fraternity keg parties and prizes for best costume. Costume strategies for men involved creativity and for women often included cleavage; and choice of costume often revealed elements of truth that we didn’t see on days that didn’t involve masks. One of my male friends dressed as a Mother Superior, which was hilarious in a Monty Python way; he came out a few years later. Another friend went as “Lampshade Man,” sticking a lampshade on his head, and going up to women and saying “Turn me on!” Another dressed as a phone–she took a white t-shirt, drew a telephone keypad on it, attached a phone receiver to a headband, and went to a party saying, “Ring, ring, I’m for you! Pick me up!”
I wasn’t really going to celebrate. I didn’t even know how. “What did you wear the last time you trick-or-treated?” my friends asked. “Umm, I’ve never been trick-or-treating.” After a shocked silence, I looked at my friends and realized I had managed to terrify them on Halloween–quite a good first effort at the holiday. They vowed to take me trick-or-treating that year, and for an authentic experience, they made me dress up (wearing a pretty modest miniskirt, tights, and boots, I didn’t look that different from any of the shul-going Upper West Siders I currently see, but I believe we called what I was “a prostitute”). We left campus and went to the suburbs of East Brunswick.
House by house, as people opened their doors, we yelled “trick or treat” and thrust out our bags waiting for the candy goodness. But the homeowners were suspicious. “Aren’t you a little old for this?” So we offered to trade services for candy–singing services. “Halloween carols? Really?” one homeowner queried. “Sure!” we agreed. We started with some classics, Frank and Broadway show tunes, and moved to some more contemporary stuff. Debbie Gibson may have been involved–the memory there is a little hazy.
So that was my first time. It felt a little weird, like I was pretending not to be Jewish; but most of the friends I was out with that night were also Jewish. They were just used to this holiday in a way I wasn’t then and never really acclimated to. Even today, I’m not such a fan of Halloween. I know other people love it and I try not to grinch on their parades, especially the famous Village Halloween Parade, which has been the unintentional fulcrum of some of my NYC-based relationships.
I appreciate the creativity of a good costume, but for me, some of them, especially the “bloodied accident victim” genre, seem to have lost their “fun,” which I trace to all the CNN footage I watched after 9/11, and others still seem like a chance for women to flaunt their womanly parts to the point of exploitation and drink until they can’t tell the difference between friends and friends-with-benefits. Which may suit everyone else fine, but that kind of obfuscation isn’t necessarily my cup of poison.
Even on the Jewish holiday of Purim, a yeshiva girl’s approved day of dress-up, I’m always second-guessing my costume. So when it comes to Halloween, which is definitely not yeshiva-approved, I generally try to stay out of it. But I do get it. There is definitely something appealing about a day of fun and freedom from the strictures of contemporary dress and behavior. so maybe I’ll come around. And, of course, there’s candy, which–metaphorically and literally–everyone can agree is totally sweet.