Winifred Sanderson, Hocus Pocus (1993)
I have been laughing at this Halloween photo for 20 years. Every single time I come across it, a grin breaks across my face, and no matter how awful the situation was back in the day, I find myself chuckling, remembering the story I have been told more so than the actual events that occurred. On her original Facebook post, my mom’s caption was, “And this is why Kathleen doesn’t like makeup!” which would be the honest truth. How did this disaster actually come to be? Well — my dad just has never been much of an artist, let’s just put it that way. We, however, have always been the kind of family that made a big huge deal out of Halloween. Since I moved out of my parents’ house and into my first apartment, however, I haven’t had the time to be in the spirit of Halloween. I don’t really have much by way of decoration, and have skipped pumpkin carving all together this year. I couldn’t scrape the funds together to do my annual Halloween arts and crafts project — and nor could I find the time even if I had had the money. Last year, I did make tiny ghosts out of silk maple
leaves and fabric paint. I carved pumpkins in my kitchen. I even wrote some creative non-fiction in order to help bridge the distance. But so far, this year, the holiday spirit seems even further removed from me. Maybe it’s just been that I’m out of it — so wrapped up in the future after college that I forget to live for the moment. Maybe I’m worried I’ll forget something important, without realizing that I already have. Instead of being so swept up in little details like assignments, and graduate school programs, I want to be a bit nostalgic. So, that’s what this blog post is about. It’s about remembering old family traditions at a time where I feel so far away from everyone. My house is cold and drafty, and sometimes kind of colorless, if I think about it. There aren’t a lot of autumn themed things laying around — no multicolored gourds sitting on altars, no dishes of candy corn that nobody will eat. Not a single ear of Indian corn, nor
any wreaths or wooden decorative signs. Maybe, looking around, it seems rather drab, almost as though a witch doesn’t actually live here; couldn’t live here. But, hey. At least I still have old photographs of my dorky family that I can laugh about to bring me back into a better spirit.
II. Pumpkin Patch
Two costumes were incredibly popular for my sibling and I over the years — Pumpkins and Witches. Go figure, right? It’s convenient, simple and adorable to go dressed as a pumpkin. When we were babies, they were long sleeved onesies to help combat the southern New York cold that crept in during Halloween Night. For a long time, my immediate family lived on Cape Cod, but we’d always travel back to New York for Halloween — back to my grandparents’ house in Maybrook that I remember like yesterday. My grandparents had a most excellent taste in decorations, to boot. Everything was done up to perfection — cobwebs, plastic spiders, candles, pumpkins and dead branches made out to be mini Halloween trees — or the miniature plastic skeleton that hung from a hand twisted twine noose at the front door that everyone had always dubbed Dead Fred. There were lights strung inside and out, with the occasional wreath. The was an old mechanical crow that, when provoked by motion, would holler, “The end is near!” …I can still hear its shriek as though it was not just a figment of my memory from years gone by, and instead it sits on the table next to me as I type. Maybe one of my favorites was Drac, the dancing
vampire that Grandpa kept in his window near his writing desk. I can’t remember everything he said once the button was pushed on the base he stood on, but it had that classic old-fashioned Halloween charm. The face looked scary because it was plastic made to look real like the dolls did at that time, and the eyes were little green LEDs that flashed when it was activated and moved around. He had a shock of grey hair that resembled the hairstyles of the troll dolls everyone in the 80’s and 90’s everyone seemed to collect, and a black and red satin cape which clung to his plastic
fingers and matched so well with his satin suit. All these tiny details are clear as day in my memory. I was always the shy, quiet kidling, and to be honest — that fact hasn’t changed too much in all my years. Maybe the reason I remember the decorations more than the interactions at these Halloween parties is because I paid attention and marveled, and that was the most fun for me. I loved the way so much was improvised when money was short, and thus hand made, and how so many of the decorations were repaired and brought back out year, after year. My cousin, pictured on the right, always had such creative costumes. When the weather was bad, my family was really good as solving the problem without compromising our costumes too much. (They probably just gave themselves a larger candy tax for the trouble.) Most people, when I was a kid, always looked forward to Christmas. They wanted to tear open gifts and see what they got. It is, for a kid, a holiday about things. Well, I always looked forward to Halloween. It wasn’t about things — but about being. And maybe I didn’t really understand that as a kid — gods know, I was no tiny philosopher — but, the night before we would pack up and leave for my grandparents’ house was one night I could never sleep.
III. Little Monsters
I read on a Facebook page once a cute quote on an image. It was text over a white paper-like background which went something like this, but with a typographical error somewhere — I would have saved it otherwise: Your cousins are your first ever friends. Halloween was the one point of the year where all of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family would get to see each other again. We have all drifted to our own little corners of the universe, now that we’re all in our twenties — but there was a time when we were just content to do the Monster Mash in Gramma’s kitchen. Growing up, Halloweens meant that we we were together again. I remember that there was this one time that my family had to be stuck at my grandparents’ house because the car broke down.
Although we did often visit at other points in the year, I remember that when we finally had to leave, it felt like the end of the world. Of course it would feel that way to my kid-mind. But, I think even then, I understood how important family was. Now that I am so far away from everyone, I’d give anything just to dig back into family traditions. This past April, my Gramma passed away. I mentioned before that we would do the monster mash in her kitchen — she was always the best hostess. And sure, it has been years since she lived in the old Maybrook house, and even more years since we all met up for
Halloween — this time of year specifically makes me miss her. Even when she isn’t with her, I’m sure we’re all still her little monsters. I keep hoping that, on the other side, she’s hosting their Halloween party, and watching over the fragments of our family, somehow ensuring we all stay connected.
IV. I Put a Spell on You
Sometimes, for Halloween — you kind of dress up as an exaggeration of something you
already are. Normally, you can be whatever you want. But the women in my family have collectively dressed as witches more often than not. As I got older, I realized — no matter what, it really wasn’t too far off the mark for most of us. I mentioned in an earlier section that I have been dressed up as myself (Read: a Witch) more times than any other costume. I was twelve, the first time I performed a Samhain ritual. It was November the 1st, as the book suggested a valid date was for the ritual, and it was the first time that the Pagan world crashed in around me. We didn’t grow up in a religious environment, but the way
life was lived was pretty witchy, even at an earlier age. I am the only practicing witch in my family now — and the only pagan. And while Halloween has become a parody of an ancient tradition, I still can’t help but watch Hocus Pocus on Halloween every year and find some really fancy witch hat to parade around in. My
paganism is quiet, and a lot of my traditions aren’t ornate or complicated. On Samhain, every year without fail since I learned how, I have made it a tradition to drop everything important and just cook. All throughout the entire day. Sometimes, I invite a ton of people over — sometimes it definitely more of a quiet thing. I always cook like I’ve invited an army; that’s how Gramma always did it. We light candles, and link arms and take a moment to breathe before dinner starts. Now
that we’re older, we drink wine or mead and tell stories of the people in our lives who have passed. We put pictures on altars, and set out a plate and a glass for the ghosts, and hope that they pass by. Sometimes, with some groups, it doesn’t take much to get everyone into the frame of mind where the slightest stir of wind feels like their ancestors. It doesn’t matter what spiritual tradition they come from, or what faith they practice — or don’t. When I explain to them that this holiday is about those gone before us, almost everyone finds it in themselves to suspend their disbelief. Halloween, and November 1st — my day to celebrate Samhain — becomes a time where ghosts are no longer just stories. Almost everyone walks away feeling content, like they have linked fingers with spirits — like have seen
beyond our mundane world in a small way. Nobody blinks or questions when I take the plate of food and the glass of alcohol and dump it outside as an offering — since we live on a different plane of existence, our food can’t help the ghosts. But I’m sure they appreciate it, anyway. Over the years, even though I have drifted away from tradition, and thus away from my family — and have experienced some difficulties in doing so, somehow I feel closer to tradition than I have in a while. I like reflecting. In reflecting, in remembering, I feel like I do justice to traditions that have begun to fade as the years have crept up on us. Halloween was never just some silly thing wherein children go out and trick or treat — not for my family. It was always about bringing us closer together. And now, that’s even more true the further apart we drift.