My sister was born on Halloween 26 years ago and it’s been a treasured family holiday ever since. Every year of our childhoods, we decorated and prepared for Halloween with the sort of jubilee most Americans reserve for Christmas.
Every October 1st, amidst a great deal of anticipatory shrieking, my parents set up their homemade “haunted doll house” on a card table in the living room and my sister and I would spend countless October hours parading our diminutive skeleton and witch dolls through the moody blue and grey house, serving trays of impossibly miniature Halloween cookies to friendly Frankenstein characters before taking everyone out for a picnic in the mini pumpkin patch (next to the miniature outhouse) at the back of the painted plywood board property.
There was always a cauldron full of dry ice and punch on the dinner table for Halloween and always my mother’s famous roll-out cookies decorated with the sort of precision and attention to detail that would make her a legend on Pinterest today. When she wasn’t staying up until 3am decorating cookies after a 12 hour shift at the hospital, my mother spent her October at her sewing machine making our costumes from whichever McCalls patterns we’d picked out at the fabric store in late September.
My mother hates sewing but I do remember even as a young kid being able to sense her quiet excitement and satisfaction when we’d put on those costumes on Halloween night and twirl in giddy circles of little girl happiness. I remember too my sister’s own unique excitement for the holiday, how it always felt like the most perfect celebration of her fun and quirky little personality and how she always had so many friends wanting to be there to celebrate with her.
Growing up, my family didn’t do nightly family dinners or family game nights or go to church. We didn’t do family vacations until we were well into our adolescence. But we did holidays.
I am thus, understandably, an emotional mess about holidays now that I’m a grown up with my own family–Halloween and Christmas especially. There must be roll-out cookies. There must be a party. There must be decorations. I must use copious amounts of butter, sugar and many serving plates to show everyone around me how much I love them. The inherent kitschy-ness of Halloween sets me free to forsake my grown-up minimalist tastes and indulge in all of the outrageously cheesy Halloween ideas I see on Pinterest.
There are downsides to this neurosis. I woke up at 4:30am on October 31st and leapt out of bed to make a pumpkin patch version of this 3 layer chocolate fudge cake. I very nearly called off my playgroup Halloween party because, for the third year in a row, my roll-out cookies turned out so childish-looking that I was sure people would ask if Will had decorated them (which they did). Oh my goodness, what would we do if the only desserts on the table for my playgroup Halloween party were a few dozen sloppy-looking ghosts, bats and pumpkins? Clearly I needed to bake a cake at 4:30am.
As it turned out, everyone and their mother is sick this week with everything from colds and flu to Dengue and Typhoid (the joys of India living!). Only 5 of the 30+ expected attendees were well enough to make it to the playgroup party and now it’s November 1st and there are 10 pounds of Halloween-themed cake in my fridge right now.
I’m learning. I really am. I’m learning that maybe I really, really, really don’t have the patience or fine motor skills for futzy royal icing details. Maybe it’s ok to focus from the get-go on one haphazardly-decorated massive layer cake instead.
And while I may very well find myself hunched over a sewing machine at 3am on October 30th in years and locales future, for now I’m very content to dream up costumes for costume-hating toddlers and then “pull an India” and outsource the actual homemade creation bit of the process to my favorite tailor. One “homemade” lab coat + one donated pair of Harry Potter glasses + copious amounts of hair gel + 10 minutes of my time = 1 mini mad scientist.
But I realized too yesterday that perhaps my 4:30am bid for Halloween confectionary perfection stemed, at least partially, from the fact that I’ll always celebrate Halloween as my sister’s birthday and while I’m not always the best big sister in the world, everything I do to prep and decorate and bake for Halloween feels a little like a celebration of her and the amazing person she is growing up to be.
It sucks, quite frankly, that we are never in the same place for birthdays and holidays and I think perhaps slaving over black and orange baked goods and decorations for her to see on Facebook may be my own twisted way of trying to make up for it. Just like my bid for the perfect roll-out cookie at Christmas time always feels like an ode to my awe-inspiring mother and an apology for never getting to “go home” for Christmas anymore.
Thank goodness my parents were never big into Thanksgiving otherwise I’d probably insufferable. It’s one of my favorite holidays as an adult–possibly because it’s the one holiday of the season for which I just cook food and not misguided food-related familial tributes.
This pregnancy is turning me into an uncharacteristically emotional pile of mush (I cried the other day over a John Lennon quote) so perhaps, come March, I’ll look back on this post and wonder what on earth I was blubbering on about. Or not. People celebrate holidays, ostensibly, for a variety of reasons: religion, patriotism, the Hallmark corporation, cultural norms. But I don’t think any of those things are the real reason people around the world scrimp and save, cook and bake, and spend midnight hours toiling over things as seemingly pointless as a Halloween costume or the beautiful but fleeting rangoli displays for Diwali that we see all over town right now. It’s for family–whoever is in it and however you define it that makes the intersection of food and ritual and all of the other trimmings so emotionally-charged for human beings.
And for that, I don’t mind going a little crazy over cookies or cake or making sure that there’s a from-scratch lasagna in the fridge for Halloween night and annual framed pictures of Will in costume on display because those are our own little family tradition now. Labors of love all of them and all for the people whom I love the very best.