Everyone was out, or seemed to be, for the harmonic convergence of Halloween, the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos), a high-pressure system that produced a dazzlingly sunny, blue-jewel sky, temperature flirting with 60, heading toward evening and a full moon, a blue moon for that matter, and on to the wee hours when the clocks fell back, ushering in the dark side of the year.
But the last full day of the light side of the year will be remembered as bright, if windy, and warm enough to draw everyone, it seemed, outside. Thanksgiving and Christmas will be altered dramatically this year because viruses love warm interiors and family gatherings, but Halloween was a veritable fresh-air fest, almost an eruption, as cooped-up neighbors were drawn out of their seclusion to rub and bump elbows and celebrate — a community coming-out party. Social distancing took a hit. Masks were worn, but not necessarily the containment kind, more the kind that conjured creatures great and small and allowed revelers to slip into alter-identities.
Out in Carol Stream, my grandsons sprouted tails and ears and paws and turned into their current favorite animals. Bryce was Foxy the Fox and Tyler, Raccy the Raccoon, the latter inspired by Tyler’s favorite chapter book, The Kissing Hand. Bryce has been fond of foxes since he played one in the Gingerbread Man, a play his class put on last year. All of this, of course, echoes the ancient totemic tradition of channeling kindred spirits from the animal world.
But mostly they were in it for the candy.
Halloween has been secularized but never totally tamed, and its roots run deep into the dark side of our psyches. No surprise, then, that the outdoor decorating was outsized, a counter-reaction most likely to this most deflating of years. Homeowners went all out with zombies and gravestones and ghosts and eerie ethereal beings holding confabs on front lawns or hanging from trees. Pumpkins galore, many turned into lanterns, added to the atmosphere.
But it’s boom time for the skeleton manufacturing sector. Boney hands poked out of the ground as if struggling to escape virtual graves. Many full skeletons had already broken out and could be seen climbing the walls of Victorians or sitting around tables in a most civilized manner, conversing or sipping tea.
This boney bonanza may reflect the influence of Latin culture, thanks in no small part to the popularity of the 2017 Disney animated feature, Coco. Day of the Dead celebrations highlight the importance of ancestors with ofrendas, shrines featuring sugar skulls, orange marigolds, and photos of departed family forebears. Normally, they’re kept indoors, but this year more than 60 ofrendas were visible outdoors or in storefront windows throughout Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, thanks to a Facebook group that organized the event and even provided a map. We visited an ofrenda outside a home near Longfellow Park, listened to tales of Mexican heritage, and marveled at the anchoring of ancestry, not to mention the anchoring of items that somehow defied the late-afternoon blustery wind. A flotilla of neighbors flowed past, stopping to trick-or-treat and admire the display.
On our walk home, we passed fire pits, block parties, informal front lawn concerts, with plenty of adult beverages in hand. Costumed figures chattered and strategized about which house to approach next and compared the bounty from their last stop. Some houses left bowls out on tables, but that cut down on the personal interaction that is so integral to this holiday, so many candy distributors attached plastic or cardboard tubes to their railings and let their treats slide down into waiting bags and pumpkin buckets.
In front of one house, speakers blasted “Love Potion #9” and passersby stopped to dance the Twist. In front of another, “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia” played on a loop.
Even multifamily buildings joined in, residents sitting in courtyards, beckoning the reluctant, holding court, or partying on blacktop causeways beneath balconies. All of this, no doubt, was fueled by restlessness, a rebellion against pandemic restrictions.
The spirits can be held back only so long. And Halloween, if nothing else, is about giving a longer leash, and partial vent, to our inner demonic. But it’s also a sign of vibrancy and resiliency, putting the “unity” back in “community.”
Several days later, we find ourselves on the far side of Daylight Savings Time, and the far side of a presidential election, taking stock to see if the dark side has prevailed permanently or if daylight has broken through the gloom. This election was way scarier than Halloween. Is it morning or mourning in America? Trick or treat?
Whichever reigns, at least we can take some solace in knowing we had one hell of a heavenly Halloween.