Halloween is a couple days away, but my New York City neighborhood has been ready for weeks! Townhouses and apartment buildings have taken on the orange and black hue of eerie decorations that are sure to scare young "trick-or-treaters" and maybe even their parents.
Halloween is a very special night for many children and a real custom for most American families. So, of course, these decorations have become a neighborhood tradition in our part of town. Jack o' Lanterns have taken their places on doorsteps and in windows. Their faces raggedly carved into place, some with smiles and some scowls, and illuminated by a burning candle hidden deep within. These are meant to keep away evil spirits and ghosts that seem to gather each year on Samhain, "end of summer." In fact, ancient Celtics also wore masks while walking around on this night each year so as not to be identified as human.
Spider webs are draped from doors and windows where an occasional spider can be seen standing in wait for visitors to arrive. But these spiders are frozen for all time, or until they are discarded. Witches, each with a pointed hat and a broom, lurk in doorways, while skeletons skulk in the bushes flashing their teeth and bones. Bats hang from ceilings and chandeliers. So can the vampires be far behind?
Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday in the U.S., next to Christmas, with more than $2 billion spent each year just on candy. Tootsie rolls were the first penny candy handed out, but chocolate is the most popular candy today, especially Snickers. It is easy to go through several hundred New York dollars worth of candy by the time the crowd tapers off on our street. Some parents bring their toddlers as early as 4pm, while teenagers will still be out patrolling well past 10pm.
Over the years several neighborhoods in New York have emerged as the place to go trick-or-treating. Carnegie Hill, on the upper east side of Manhattan, has become ground zero for kids from throughout the region. Cars with New Jersey license plates and buses from the Bronx drop costumed children off at the end of the block and come back an hour later to pick up their passengers loaded down with candy. Television and movie stars, who are seldom costumed, are always very nice when they drop by with their children. For instance, Alex Baldwin came by one year with his daughter.
Not every townhouse welcomes trick-or-treaters. They are the homes with their shades down and lights off. Meanwhile, apartment buildings frequently post a list of apartments that will receive trick-or-treaters. This is usually a "residents only" arrangement where parents can go up and down elevators with their devilish flock and have a successful evening without leaving the building.
For many, Halloween is party night. And if you are a thirteen-year-old girl in Manhattan it may be a chance to invite your costumed friends over and listen to music and watch scary movies. Then, at some point, this bevy of beasts and ogres goes door to door in search of candy. Later they return to the front stoop to assist in the distribution process.
At its peak, hundreds of people, moving in all directions, squeeze onto the sidewalk in front of our home where we are encamped with baskets of goodies. This year we are looking forward to seeing werewolves, ghosts, devils and even a dithering President Barack Obama (or two). Last year we were visited by a Dick Cheney, including a cowboy hat and fake shotgun. But a return visit is unlikely as he and his cast of characters are thankfully only a haunting memory. Anyway, there is more optimism this year than last Halloween.
And remember, tradition says if you see an actual spider on Halloween night, it is the spirit of a loved one looking over you. Eek! That's one tradition I am never going to get my daughter to believe!