Tonight was “Trick or Treat” night in the town of Mechanicsburg, PA. The idea of designating the Thursday evening before October 31 as the official night for trick or treating is new to me. When I was growing up in north Jersey we always went out the night before Halloween and wreaked havoc on the neighborhood. This was called “Mischief Night.” Then, on the evening of the 31st, we put on our costumes and headed out to collect our sugary loot. In Mechanicsburg, kids are allowed to knock on doors between 6:00pm and 8:00pm. Back in the day, we used to head out right after school and return home, with our pillow cases overflowing with Clark Bars, Mallo Cups, Razzles, Bottlecaps, Necco Wafers, Now and Laters, Bit-O-Honeys, Zagnuts, and Oh Henry Bars, around 9:00 or 10:00pm.
We have a family tradition in our household which we call “divvying up the goods.” We get home and dump all the kids candy on the floor. Then we sort them into piles–Reeses Peanut Butter Cups in one pile, Snickers in another pile, Kit Kats in another pile, etc…. We then see which pile is the largest and dub that particular brand the “winner” for the year.
Since we moved to central Pennsylvania, Hershey products consistently win out. (This year Reese’s finished first, Kit Kats second, and Hershey Bars third). I guess people are committed to supporting their neighbors in the nearby company town of Hershey. This is good.
As I wandered through the neighborhood with my girls, my wife, and our dog, I was struck by the way in which Halloween fosters community in my town. Think about it. Halloween (or in our town, “Trick or Treat Night”) is a night in which everyone in the community distributes free candy to all the neighborhood kids. This means that people, at least for a night, have to think of their neighbors more than themselves. They have to go to the store, drop five or ten bucks for a few bags of candy, and spend two hours of their evening distributing it to eager youngsters.
Sure some folks in the neighborhood keep the porch light off–a sign to the kids that their house will not be participating in the Trick or Treat festivities. But most of the people in our neighborhood not only participate, but drag their lawn chairs out to the end of their driveways and warmly greet the kids as they come by. Many of them wear costumes. Some not only drop the candy in the bags, but also chat for a few minutes.
In the “remote” parts of our neighborhood (defined by the distance from where we live) we get a chance to talk to people with whom we carry on conversations only once or twice a year.
For example, there is the multi-tasker on Nittany Drive. Every year on Trick or Treat Night this guy is out in his front yard raking leaves. He breaks only to say hello to the kids and give them an Almond Joy. This year my wife called attention to his annual ritual.
Joy: “We notice that every year we come by your house you are raking leaves.”
Multitasking neighbor: “I know! I make these nice neat piles and then when I wake up in next morning the wind has scattered the leaves all over my lawn again.
Joy: “That’s why we wait until the last possible day to rake our leaves!” (Laughter).
Then there is the guy on the corner of Nittany and Redwood who gave my daughter Allyson–who was dressed like a Krispy Kreme donut baker, complete with white pants, a white shirt, a Krispy Kreme hat, and a plate of donuts–a history lesson about how Krispy Kreme used to deliver donuts door to door.
At another house a woman called her entire family to the door to see Allyson’s costume. “You’re a Krispy Kreme donut man–that’s sick!,” yelled a college-age resident of the house. “You can come by the house any day and bake me some dounuts!” Allyson was thrilled, but it took Joy and I few seconds to figure out that “sick” was a good thing.
After that we stopped at the house of the kids elementary school bus driver. She wanted to know how Allyson was doing in middle school. After we left, Caroline, my fourth grader, commented: “She is a lot nicer when she’s not driving the bus.”
It was good to see the family at the end of the street who always goes overboard with the Halloween decorations. Last year they had some health problems in their family and were not able to be around on Trick or Treat Night, “Good to have you back,” Joy yelled to them from the road. “Good to be back,” they shouted in reply.
The elderly couple on Spring Run Drive had their usual giant kettle of candy waiting for the kids. And, as they do every year, they asked me if I wanted something from the kettle as well. I usually decline, but this year I grabbed a Twix.
The retired baby-food salesman and his wife who live next door were so excited to see the kid’s costumes and take pictures of them that they forgot to give them any candy. Across the street, an elderly widow saved two giant Hershey Bars for the girls.
Perhaps what I have just described is more a sign of the decline of community than evidence of its revitalization. After all, this kind of community only happens once a year. Fair enough. But in a society growing ever more individualistic and self-absorbed, Trick or Treat Night may be the best we can do.
Yet if people can come out to chat with their neighbors once a year, it gives me hope that perhaps this kind of sociability is possible on a more regular basis.
I have never been a fan of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins. Nor do I look forward to my girls being on a two-week sugar high. But I think Halloween is becoming one of my favorite “secular” holidays.