Friday, October 16, 2009

The Still-Pretty-Great-Pumpkin, or HALLOWEEN: The Next Generation

I remember Halloween pretty fondly from my Upper West Side childhood.

My friends and I used to dress up in home-made costumes -- they were ALWAYS home-made in those days, never store-bought. And we'd trick or treat "for Unicef," shaking our bright orange cardboard boxes -- which I loved putting together the day before, tucking in all the tabs -- chanting in singsong, going from apartment to apartment. (The next day, mom would break open my box and help me count the coins we'd donate.) I had Halloween parties in which my art-loving, ever-creative mom used to "web" a room in our apartment, stringing twine through everything to creative an enormous web. Each string finished off attached to a wooden clothes pin, and each kid at the party got to try to wind that string around the clothes pin and untangle the web. We used to eat candy corn until we got stomach aches. A great time was had by all, and it didn't cost a lot.

But these days, Halloween is big business, the kind of massive consumer-goods-heavy enterprise that makes me think of what one of the PEANUTS gang says about Christmas in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," that it's all run by "an eastern syndicate."

I want my kids to enjoy it, but I don't want to be compelled to buy, buy, buy to make that happen.

Yet it isn't easy.

A Halloween SPIRIT store has opened up on our corner. It has a huge inflatable orange man-type figure of undefined identity -- is he a scarecrow? A big orange stick with hair? And there's an inflatable Jack-O-Lantern snow globe and skeleton. It's pretty enticing. For several weeks now, we drive right by it on the way home from school, and I admit I've promised the kids we'll go in to buy costumes. Unlike my mom and many of my friends' mothers of that day, I don't have time to make a home-made costume, so store-bought is gonna have to cut it. I will part with money there.

A couple of weekends ago, Late Blooming Dad and I packed the kids into the car and drove the 29 miles to Pasadena. The lure was Kidspace Museum's 15th annual "free" Pumpkin Festival. But "free" didn't really mean free. True, there was no admission fee. The festival was in a big park by the Rose Bowl. But other than one arts and crafts table open to all (we made ghost puppets), everything else required that we purchase tickets. Tickets were a dollar each, and each attraction cost anywhere from one to six tickets. After the kids endured the lines and visited two bouncies, played carnival games, got face painting, and temporary tattoos, we'd spent quite the wad. Might've spent more, but they RAN OUT of pumpkins.

So much for free Halloween festivities.

And yet... I feel compelled to spend more. On Sunday, it's off to an urban pumpkin patch, the kind of temporary attraction thrown up for a few weeks in October on an otherwise empty lot. There will be a train ride, pony ride, more bouncies and face painting, and I hope we will actually be able to purchase our pumpkins there.

I'm drawing the line at decorations on our door; I really don't need cobwebs and a hanging paper glow-in-the-dark skeleton, now do I?

I promise I'll stop the financial bleeding there, really I will. Oh, except for the following weekend, when the local elementary school puts on their 62nd annual "Halloween Hoot" carnival. 62nd annual. I kid you not.

Clearly I'm not the only one who finds this holiday so compelling, despite the money parents part with, me included, and the commercialism run rampant. I think it's about some very good childhood memories, and a compulsion to give my kids some of the same, while they're still young enough to appreciate selecting a pumpkin, taking it home, carving it, turning out the lights, and watching the glow of a candle through those Jack O'Lantern teeth and eyes.

Pass me the candy corn, will ya? Who says wax-like sugar concoctions are just for kids...

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