It’s an absolutely gorgeous day in Fresno today. And by gorgeous, I mean it’s overcast and nippy and has been sprinkling rain on and off. That’s my definition of gorgeous, folks, because when you live in a climate that is normally blazing hot and dry, a little wind and rain is a blessing.
The sun is starting to peek out and even though we are forecasted for showers today I doubt we’ll see anything more than a bit of spittle from the sky. But that’s alright. You know why? Because it’s October, and October is my favorite month.
It started back in elementary school, back when October was a month-long homage to Halloween. Right around the first of October the teachers started decorating their classrooms with cobwebs and glittery spiders and toothy grinning pumpkins. Summer’s oppressive heat began to give way to chilly mornings, cloudy gray skies, and stiff breezes that scattered autumn’s first red and gold foliage across the playground.
I remember October so vividly from my childhood because Halloween parties were one of my favorite things as a kid. Coming to school in costume was never such a grand ordeal as it was in elementary school. While that tradition carried over into high school, it was never met with quite the same fervor as those early years when everybody (and man do I mean everybody) wore a costume.
I remember the classroom parties brimming with sweets just as well as I remember the aftermath of loading 25 eight-year-olds up with sugar. I remember those times because they meant the holiday season was upon us. They meant that we would be spending a little bit more time doing arts and crafts and parties in school and a little less time doing math. It meant we were soon to be rewarded with several weeks of holiday break time, and any reason not to be at school was often welcomed by students long since worn out on sitting still and paying attention.
I recall vividly the anticipation that preceded Halloween night. All day long we squirmed our way excitably through the school-yard festivities, waiting for the bell to ring so we could race home and wait out the nightfall. I remember one Halloween, when I was very young and had to stay after school in a program until my mom could come get me after work. I was so afraid she would forget to come pick me up, that she would forget me and I would just sit there until night fell and I would miss Halloween entirely. I spent most of our time there sitting on the jungle gym watching the sun set and waiting so impatiently for my mom. Halloween, to me, is a holiday anticipated as much as Christmas, so you can imagine how squirmy I got thinking I would miss it!
Years ago, before my family moved from the city to the middle of nowhere, we used to make a grand display every October. As soon as September ended, we broke out dusty old boxes of decorations from the attic (a spooky place in its own right, no decor needed) and began the long and arduous task of making our house stand out among the swathes of other houses on the block clamoring for attention. We spent hours putting up fake cobwebs in massive tangles all around the eves of the house. We hung bedsheet ghosts from the porch and stuffed a creepy old scarecrow full of straw. He had a grotesque mask on that my sister and I used to steal and wear ourselves…until one year we saw a Goosebumps Halloween movie where a possessed mask latches on to a kid’s face…
Every year we did this, putting up a big black tarp to block in our front porch like a haunted house. Nothing too scary was ever put in there, nothing ever jumped out or screamed or moved. The scarecrow sitting on the bench was inanimate. But the dry ice creeping though the bushes and a hidden stereo playing eerie music kept many a small child at bay, clinging to their parents’ legs, refusing to go inside.
I remember the trick-or-treating, too, because everything October promised me culminated in that amazing night. It was a huge to-do for a grade school kid. Gather up as many of your friends as your could, grab the biggest pillow case you could find, hound your parents relentlessly until the sun was down, then bolt out the door like a bat out of hell and trick-or-treat until your little costumed legs fell off and you collapsed back home with several pounds of hard-earned candy. We always knew which houses gave out the best candy. I recall there was a house only a block or two from mine where the nice old lady gave out king sized candy bars early in the night. And we knew which houses had the worst. Raisins for Halloween? Give me a break.
Then came the candy trading. In my house, between my sister and I, the customary trading of Halloween candy got as intense as trading on the floor of the NY stock exchange.
“I’ll give you a Snickers for one of your Reese’s cups!”
“No way. Give me a Twix.”
“No! Okay, okay. TWO Snickers for a Reese’s.”
“Two snickers and a caramel.”
“No! That’s my caramel. Two snickers aaand…a box of Dots.”
“Ew. Dots are gross. Nobody likes Dots.”
“Nobody likes YOU.”
My parents, being the good folks that they are, tried to ration our candy. This worked about as well as rationing alcohol to an alcoholic. No matter where they hid the goods, we found them. My parents, while intelligent and well-intentioned people, never could grasp the concept that just because they hid the candy on the top shelf, my sister and I were capable of getting a step stool or a chair. These were the days of gluttony and intense sugar crashes. These were the days of hiding behind my bed shoveling as much candy into my mouth as humanly possible while listening for the tell-tale footsteps of a searching mother. These were the days of bringing candy to school in my lunch pail and surreptitiously comparing it to the candy other kids brought. If trading candy among siblings was intense, then trading candy with schoolmates was damn near volatile. Friends were won and lost by the quality of your offer, make no mistake.
It was always a day of quiet sorrow when the Halloween decor came down. The cobwebs returned to their boxes, nestled in among rubber spiders and plastic skeletons and tangles of creepy eyeball lights. The scarecrow got ripped apart and stuffed back into the attic (where I am convinced he did not stay stationary for long) and the ghosts were banished back to the nether. October ended in a blaze of sugary-sweet glory that I will never forget. November, while a wonderful month in its own right, was never quite as beautiful or as anticipated as October.
Even today, at twenty four years old, October is heralded by a buzz of anticipation and excitement. Halloween and I have grown apart over the years, and it feels a bit like losing track of an old childhood friend. When my family moved to the country we stopped decorating the house, mostly because we have no neighbors and therefore no one to stop by and admire. I assume all those boxes are still in storage somewhere, just waiting for someone to remember them. As my sister and I got older, trick-or-treating became a thing of the past. While I maintain that you are never too old to dress up and ask strangers for candy, society seems to differ on that point. Sometime in high school, we lost the ability to cheerfully bag candy from random people in neighboring houses. It wasn’t long after that that Halloween parties became too childish, costumes were dorky, and the entire holiday faded into a shadow of its former glory.
These days, October has become more than just a spooky holiday to me. October brings with it the promise of autumn, that fabled season in Fresno that lasts but a few short, blustery weeks. After months of unbearable heat, Fresnans welcome the change in weather even if it lasts about as long as a fat kid’s Halloween candy. October hangs in limbo between hot and cold, which are Fresno’s two primary seasons. Spring and fall are not so much spring and fall here as they are “less hot” and “less cold” and between the two of them, I prefer October’s version. There is something beautiful and serene about watching the leaves change, the department stores put up tacky Halloween displays, and the sky go from clear blue to quiet gray.
Maybe October isn’t just about Halloween anymore, but it still retains that hint of anticipation. I still do a Halloween party every year, which is less about Halloween and more about eating a lot of junk food, watching scary movies, and getting together with friends. These days it’s more about opening the windows to bring in the breeze, stocking up on canned pumpkin, and baking with fall flavors. It’s more about wearing pajama pants to bed, keeping your feet warm, and drinking hot coffee for the first time since May. It’s about hot apple cider spiked with rum, it’s about curling up in a blanket and not getting too hot, it’s about soups and stews and crockpot applesauce. It’s about getting jackets and scarves out of storage and fantasizing about buying a pair of expensive fall boots. October, in a way, has become its own adult version of Halloween. Even if the wild excitement of the holiday is gone, the spirit of those crazy elementary school days is still hanging around.
I remember those days every time I see a grinning foam jack-o-lantern, an oversized wiggly rubber spider, or a silly bedsheet ghost fluttering in the breeze. I remember what it felt like to be a kid where everything is fun and you’re not too old or too cool to wear a dorky costume or go to an adult-supervised Halloween party. I remember what it felt like to be 10 years old and terrified of Mummy movies. I remember the year I went trick-or-treating and a person jumped out from behind a tombstone on someone’s lawn and I bolted so fast I ran out of my slippers. I remember when the biggest concern for the month wasn’t grade point averages or test scores or how you were going to make rent. It was how you were going to coordinate your costume with your best friend, and what time you were going to meet up that night to get the maximum amount of time trick-or-treating.
I don’t trick-or-treat anymore. I don’t decorate my front porch (I don’t even have one) and I don’t wear costumes. But October is still my favorite month, and Halloween will always be my favorite holiday.