Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
For many families, last spring’s lockdown bore unexpected fruit – new cooking skills or musical instruments or fostered ducklings. In our family, the fruit was quite literal. A fifty-pound pumpkin dangling from a tree in our backyard is the most wondrous product of our lockdown-induced vegetable garden. It’s also the reason that our family will be celebrating Halloween this year, come what may.
Premiers, public health officers and epidemiologists can muse all they like over the relative risks of Halloween and the jurisdictional if not constitutional issues associated with a ban, but one thing is clear: the hallowed eve is not going to pass unnoticed. Skeletons are already hanging from trees, inflated black cats are glaring out of bushes and bulk boxes of chocolate bars are choking the check-out lines at grocery stores.
Life goes on and the challenge – increasingly familiar – will be to keep things both fun and safe. To this end, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was quick to break down Halloween into its constituent parts and categorize them by risk level. Low risk: decorating your house. High risk: traditional trick-or-treating.
If “traditional trick-or-treating” means flocks of screaming children wandering the streets, clotting front porches and wrangling to get their grubby paws on the loot, then no, it’s not on for this year. Woodstock, New Brunswick (population 5,228) was the first Canadian municipality to make that call: its city council voted unanimously on September 15 to ban door-to-door trick-or-treating.
But might there be a non-traditional, public health-conforming variant of trick-or-treating? Might we be able to rein in our little Elsas and Fart Clouds; to encourage them to wait their turn, approach single file, and take one, not 12? The dentally-uninsured among us revel at the thought. And the Internet continues to cough up ideas: individually-packaged grab bags carefully spaced along driveways, plumbing pipes tied to railings serving as candy chutes, children armed with toaster tongs for safe retrieval. Households not wanting to participate can practise the time-honoured techniques of turning off lights, shutting blinds, and – where possible – placing misanthropic pets in the window.
If, on the eve of the eve, local health authorities deem trick-or-treating too risky, so be it. Halloween must not be reduced to the profane act of candy collection. As with many things, anticipation is half the fun. Take our pumpkin. Planted mid-summer as two leaves on a root, the vine had taken over the better part of our garden by September, strangling our parsley, reaching tentatively through the fence and sending one fearless tentacle vertically through my mother’s pride and joy: a weeping redbud tree. On the advice of a horticultural aunt, we encouraged the plant to focus on reproduction rather than conquest by shaking some of its male flowers into its female ones (their anatomy is quite distinct). It obliged, sort of. Within a week, the rosebud was donning what looked like a yellow earring. It grew. And grew, eventually requiring an inverted bucket pedestal to prevent it from pulling down its host. There is only one plausible use for this singular fruit, assuming it is still transportable on October 31.
For those without rapacious pumpkins to tend, there are costumes to make, yards and dwellings to adorn, seeds to roast, apples to candy. These are ideal pandemic pursuits. In fact, if kids were to channel all the time freed up by cancelled extra-curriculars into these activities, we could have the most Instagram-friendly Halloween on record. This is the not the year to order Peppa Pig Ballerina costumes on Amazon but to dig deep, the way my carpenter cousin once did, building a pair of wearable outhouses for himself and his daughter – one of which lived out its post-Halloween days usefully on a rural property.
This year’s Halloween can be salvaged. Unlike so many of our feast-days, it does not involve squishing a lot of familial bums around a table to consume large quantities of food and speak moistly among ourselves. All it really involves is creativity. And with the notable exception of the pandemic, the stars are aligning: we’re going to have a full moon, a Saturday night and an extra hour to sleep the next day.
For the ancient Celts to whom we owe the tradition, Halloween (or Samhain as they called it) marked the beginning of a new year. They lit hilltop bonfires to appease angry gods, ward off evil spirits and bring symbolic light and warmth into the darkness ahead. Three thousand years later, we have electricity, plexiglass shields and the promise of vaccines. Still, at this point, a little touch of the pagan can’t hurt.
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