When Did Halloween Become an Endurance Test?
One by one, holidays have morphed from single-day celebrations into weeks-long marathons. Enough!
The best Halloween costume I ever made for either of my kids was the year Luke was three. We teased and sprayed his blond curls, applied some bushy gray eyebrows and a mustache to match, taught him to say “E equals MC squared,” and congratulated ourselves on both his extreme adorability and the fact that we saw not a single other Einstein out trick-or-treating that year.
These days, he’s 10 and roundly disinterested in his mother’s ideas for costumes — for years, it’s been a pedestrian parade of ninjas and superheroes straight off Amazon. I still have his little sister, though, and when, last year, she declared that she wanted to be a “rainbow crayon,” I delightedly blew off a deadline, pulled out the felt and fabric glue, and got to work.
I offer up these vignettes so you understand that I’m a reasonably enthusiastic Halloween parent. Really, I am. I remember from my own childhood the mounting excitement as October wore on, the thrill of a great costume, the giddy intoxication of the variation from routine. We got to go out! At night! Roaming streets with friends! For candy! If I can help facilitate similarly joyful memories (with accompanying cute photos) for my own kids, I’m more than happy to.
But … you know what else I remember? Halloween back then — and this would be the 1980s and early ’90s — was one day long. That was it. If it fell on a weekday in grade school, there would be a class costume party organized by some “room moms,” and then my friends and I would come home, scarf down dinner, put our costumes back on, and go trick-or-treating en masse with a couple of parents in tow. True, the candy bingeing and bartering dragged on for many more days, but that required zero input from any adult. The parents did their holiday duty and moved on.
This is not how it’s done anymore.
Halloween has become an entire season unto itself. A party marathon. A celebratory slog. I don’t know when, exactly, this happened, but I do know that now, by the time the big night arrives, my children are already eyeball-deep in candy and all but ambivalent about donning their costumes yet again. It breaks my heart a bit, but there you have it. They steep all month in a sugary stew of Halloween block parties, parades, various trick-and trunk-or-treating events, costume brunches, goody bags from well-meaning parents, pumpkin painting, pumpkin picking, and so forth.
Given this onslaught of fun — almost all of which involves planning and schlepping and cajoling by, yes, the parents — I’m astounded every year when I catch wind of neighborhood conversations about whether there should be an additional weekend night for trick-or-treating, or a rain date, or some other grown-up intervention seemingly designed to make the holiday last even longer and feel ever more special.
What is wrong with you people? I always wonder. Don’t you have a normal life to get back to?
But judging by all the other major and minor holidays we’ve somehow turned into entire seasons of extra parental labor — oops, I mean celebrations — and also the entire seasons we now celebrate like holidays, special is the new normal.
You might think the best example of the trend — this pattern of creating magical moments, then super-sizing them, then cramming our kids’ days as full of them as possible — would be Christmas, when merrymaking becomes (another) full-time job for so many parents. And yes, yes — I know. It’s a choice. The messaging, though, would suggest otherwise, given the Christmas-movie takeover on Netflix, the Santa wish-list talk at school, the endless Amazon catalogs that stream into the house, so much Elf on the Shelf. As my friend Beth — an exceedingly levelheaded, non-materialistic mother of two — puts it: “You do feel guilty if you don’t make this time of year feel special.” And Beth is Jewish.
For me, though, the depths of the make-it-special spiral were really plumbed last St. Patrick’s Day, which my non-Catholic, non-Irish family generally celebrates by forgetting to wear green and avoiding the Erin Express. My five-year-old, Ellie, came home from preschool talking about a leprechaun who was going to come and leave her treats.
“What?” I said.
“Mom! You know!” Ellie said.
“I … do?”
“The magic leprechaun!” Ellie said, now impatient with her mother’s benightedness. Everyone at preschool was talking about this. “The magic leprechaun comes and makes a mess of your house and then leaves you gold coins!”
I ask you: Whom do we have to thank for this fresh strain of parenting madness?
At Disney World this year, you could start celebrating Halloween in August, 11 weeks before the actual holiday. It sounds like parody (and also just plain nuts: voluntarily donning costumes in Florida in August?), but according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, “Halloween creep” is now typical at major theme parks around the country. “August,” one marketing professor told the WSJ, “is the new September.”
This isn’t just true at theme parks, either: Before it was even time for back-to-school shopping, I’d already spotted pumpkin paraphernalia at Whole Foods, giant Halloween displays at Home Goods, and — WTF — Christmas decor at Lowe’s.
Meantime, back at Walt Disney World, one social media influencer and mom of three told the WSJ her family would likely do more trick-or-treating at Disney in August and September than they would in October in their own neighborhood. Which is just … perplexing. I can’t see how days and weeks (months!!?) of trick-or-treating is remotely desirable for a parent, or even why you would want to fight the crowds on Main Street U.S.A. for your kids’ sugar high when you could simply ring doorbells down the block.
But then again, that siren song of capitalism — you know, the commercialization and commodification of everything, but especially childhood — really can lure a parent into murky territory (like to Orlando, for instance). More is more, the world and its multinational conglomerates tell us. Just think how memorable and happy you can make this Halloween/Christmas/birthday/tooth loss if you purchase cute matching pajamas and decorative pillows and festive wreaths and piles of presents and glittery goody bags filled with plastic crap that will end up in the ocean for future generations to enjoy!
Of course, this messaging likely wouldn’t get as far or achieve as much as it does if it weren’t for social media, which has split its time in recent years between bringing our democracy to its knees and making otherwise reasonable parents ask themselves if they, too, should be setting leprechaun traps in the living room. Look! Flynn’s mom did it, and she’s a neurosurgeon; if she can find the time and energy for so much magic-making, shouldn’t you?
Even if you’re usually a person who is too reasonable and rational to try to keep up with the Joneses, this isn’t really about the Joneses. It’s about your kid. And what wouldn’t you do for that kid? Also, who ever said that any part of being a parent was rational? We’re talking about basic, primal emotions here: love! Guilt! Fear of Not Making the Most of Your Time With Them! Joy, and Photographic Proof Thereof!
And should you begin to feel cynical about how the magic-making industrial complex might be preying on those emotions, or even just feel — I don’t know — exhausted by driving an hour to an orchard to buy $80 worth of apple cider doughnuts (because: fall!), maybe just consider what the website Motherly had to say on the topic earlier this year. Headline: “Moms, keep planning the magic — even when it doesn’t seem like your kids feel it anymore.”
The story goes on to remind us — us moms, duh — that even if your kids are whining and ungrateful and seemingly immune to the magic you’ve just stayed up all night to create (hmmm, I wonder why that might be?), the moments of joy you plan and coordinate “are gifts you give your children.” Gifts they keep, and gifts you keep, and etc. “So keep planning the childhood magic, mama. You’ll never, ever regret giving your children more joy.”
Another story on the site — just one quick click away — is titled “As a mom, I’m ‘Chief Memory Maker’ — a job that is equal parts wonderful and hard.”
Quoth the Chief Memory Maker:
There’s the stress of piecing together and paying for parties. There’s the stress of documenting celebrations and adventures — and sometimes even getting super fancy and creating a photo book after the fact to have proof that these memories happened. (Or at least posting a photo on Facebook or Instagram, because let’s be honest — if it wasn’t on social media — did it even happen? #RealTalk)
All of this makes me think of a piece I read a few years back in the New York Times about the absolute “relentlessness” of modern parenting, both in terms of expense and energy. The story looked at how parents slowly upped the ante of what child-rearing required over the years, beginning with the days when “parenting” first became a verb, in the 1970s. Unlike simply being a parent, the act of “parenting,” as the wise and witty Nora Ephron once observed, implied far more control over who your child would grow up to be; it was, she wrote, an endeavor that was active and energetic and fierce and solemn. Then we moved on to helicopter parenting — you know what that is — which, according to the Times, eventually gave way to the current culturally preferred mode of “intensive parenting,” which leans in on the notion that raising happy, successful humans requires all the time, money, focus and energy you could possibly give. And then more, if you can!
Of course, at this rate, it wasn’t long until even the most all-encompassing effort wasn’t cutting it. And lo, someone came up with the idea for Tooth Fairy doors. Because why just leave a dollar under a pillow when for $14 of them, you could purchase a fun door for a fairy just for this occasion? Or, if you have extra time (who doesn’t?), seek out an online tutorial and craft one? And if that isn’t special enough? Just go find one of the many, many listicles online for other creative Tooth Fairy ideas kids will love!
I wonder, sometimes, what Nora Ephron would write about this particular moment — a moment in which a fairy who appears out of nowhere in the middle of the night to trade an old tooth for actual money is somehow not quite magical enough. That more time, energy and creativity from a parent could make this tooth-loss event — which happens, what, like, 20 times in your life? — even better. I like to imagine she’d write some version of what I feel absolutely compelled to say here:
Get the hell outta here with that.
On the other hand, as I write this, Hawaii is burning. Has burned. The rest of the planet, too, for that matter, if it’s not busy drowning. And all of it is covered in forever chemicals. It seems likely we’re all going to have to somehow weather yet another election featuring Donald Trump and his 91 indictments. Elon Musk is still a thing, and so are book banning and Putin, and oh my God, aren’t ours the very same children who lost out on so much during COVID? It’s such a dark, hard, stormy world out there. Who can really blame a parent for creating escapes from this wretched norm, for doing whatever it might take to pack their little worlds full to the brim with sparkles and fun and joy while we can?
The real upshot here, though, is whether the endgame of all this parent-facilitated specialness really is so much fun and joy. I strongly suspect it’s not. When goody bags flow like water, when you’ve told five different Santas what you want for Christmas, when everything from your birthday to Flag Day is a bacchanalia, where’s the thrill? Anticipation is half the fun; too much of a good thing can numb you to the goodness. And don’t we, as Philadelphians, understand this better than anyone? I’m reminded of something my colleague Sandy Hingston wrote a few years back about why our sports championships mean so damn much to us in this city — because, she argued, “it’s scarcity that makes for meaning.”
Or as my own dad likes to say: “When everything is special, nothing is special.”
And furthermore: By strategizing and supercharging so very much special, how high are we raising the bar on what it takes to make joy? I actually worry about this. It doesn’t take as much ado as our endless holiday (and everyday!) magic-making might suggest to our children — unless we train them to think so. Memories will be made with or without parents tossing glitter all over the place — or don’t you remember? Playing outside. Mundane dinners at home. Ball games, learning to ride a bike, showing off on the monkey bars, hanging at the bus stop with friends, holding Dad’s hand: These are the sorts of things that make up the bulk of my own warm fuzzies when I think back on my childhood. Even the not-so-special becomes special with time and distance. Joy, it turns out, is less Augustus Gloop, more Mary Oliver. Every day/I see or hear /something/that more or less/kills me/with delight.
Let this be the legacy — the magic — I leave my children.
None of which is to say I won’t still go the extra, exhausting mile for some holiday traditions. Ellie wants to be a crystal princess this year, whatever that is. I’ve got the fabric glue ready. Like I said, I love a good costume. And I love my children more than life itself. That’s the real job of parenting, isn’t it? I’d give up anything for them. But a magic leprechaun messing up my house? That’s just a bridge too freaking far for this mom.
Published as “Et Tu, Halloween?” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.