I was the Virgin Mary on Halloween. For years I wore a flowing sheet and a veil with blue and gold scrolls that my mother had meticulously hand-painted along its edge. My mother was an only child who dreamed of tulips bobbing by the fence post and a houseful of children to keep her company. In the end, she had so many children that she never got around to the tulips.
There was no shame in appearing as a saint on Halloween in my robustly Roman Catholic neighborhood. It was the kind of neighborhood where all us kids laid bets on whose mother would get pregnant next. The family down the street always won. They ended up with 12 children.
As soon as twilight fell on Halloween, the whole company of heaven tumbled into the streets, halos at half-mast, ghostly figures fluttering madly from house to house: John the Baptist looking a bit like Dracula; Joan of Arc brandishing a sword; St. Joseph, protector of virgins, carrying a lily or a carpenter's square. I remember the pungent smell of leaves burning in the gutter (it was legal then), and the majestic elms that canopied high overhead, dropping their yellow leaves on our hallowed heads.
My mother insisted we yell, "Help the poor" at people's doors because she
thought "Trick or treat" sounded rude. That was odd, even in my
neighborhood. Sanctity was tolerated, but courtesy was stretching things. She stood on the porch step waving goodbye to us, baby on her hip and bathed in holy, long-suffering light from the hall behind. Then we spent the next few hours in street-by-street combat for Tootsie Rolls and Bazooka Joe bubble gum and the occasional, unwelcome apple.
This was no lighthearted excursion; it was a frenzy. Ceilings were high in
our old house, so sugary treats were kept on top of the cupboard in the pantry, well out of reach, but not beyond temptation. We heedlessly risked our necks and the near occasion of sin to steal those stale, store-bought cookies.
Because there were so many of us, everything was rationed, down to
the half-glass of orange juice we got for breakfast and the maraschino
cherries in the canned fruit cocktail that my mother served in little sundae
glasses. I liked the grapes better anyway, but I never told anyone or they
might have been rationed too. Once, my brother woke up before the rest of us and drank all that morning's orange juice -- eight half-glasses worth.
Halloween was the mother lode. It was surfeit. Unholy excess, packed down and running over. It was enough to set our brains on fire. We raced from house to house, tripping over our traitorous robes, and staggered home after hours of begging to attend to our tattered, bulging grocery sacks. Before we went to bed that night, each piece of candy was sorted and counted, bartered and haggled over: two rolls of Smartys for a Tootsie Roll Pop; three small packs of Chiclets for a full-size Snickers bar. With careful husbandry, our stash would last all through Advent.
All Saint's Day Mass came too early in the morning. That is the holy day of
obligation following Halloween (properly called All Hallowed Eve),
when we, the Church Militant, memorialized the Church Triumphant (the saints we had pretended to be the night before). Our faces were still smeared with paint, and our eyes were glazed from too much sugar and too little sleep as we knelt upright in the pew, repenting of our excess and our churning stomachs. I didn't know any saints. I didn't even know anyone who had died, except my great-grandmother, who had sat for years, soft and round as a lump of dough, at my grandmother's kitchen table.
I have not been as fecund as my mother, nor do my children celebrate
Halloween so ferociously. But then, they have never known the exhilarating
freedom of roaming fast and far on dark city streets. Alone. Dressed as
saints. Nor have they longed for treats that were always too high to reach.
It will be dark this year when I go out with my children on the streets of
our small town. The musty crispness of late autumn will sting our noses. The
last withered leaves will blow into piles that shush as we shuffle through
them. Creamy moonlight will light our way.
The saints and martyrs are long gone, but small ghostly shapes still flit
through the dark streets like fireflies. The sheets still sag, the masks
still slip, and children have the same intent expression of serious business
at hand. Townspeople will sit at their screen doors, as they do every year,
to dole out candy and chat with any child who lingers, moth-like, under the
Dark shadows of grown-ups still cluster on street corners to gossip and call hushed greetings to one another in the soft dark. Halloween is still blessed. The air is still crisp, the leaves still crunch and the streetlights spill hazy, yellow pools onto the damp pavement. In our hyper-sophisticated millennial age, Halloween comes just as it always has.
I do not impose All Saint's Day Mass on my children, but I still observe it, groggy and upright in the pew, but without the stomachache. Now,
however, I know many people who have died -- my grandmother who showed me how to make rabbits from the blossoms of bleeding heart bushes; my brother, who died young in a fast car; my first husband, who died 10 years ago at the age of 45; my grandfather, who died last year, a withered leaf at 94. They are the saints I think of now on Halloween.