Updated: Jan 27, 2021
The COVID Granny Diaries
America is preparing for one of its most distinctive and massively commercialized holidays, Halloween. While it is true that the occasion originated in All Hallow's Eve and, before that, Samhain, it was so associated with the Catholic Church in both Britain and America, that it fell into disrepute (and was even illegal some places) for a century or two.
Halloween itself was (literally) resurrected by Irish immigrants to the US during the late 19th century. During the 20th, it became more and more popular, in part because American business saw an opportunity to commercialize yet another holiday, with trick-or-treating by children (borrowed from older Christmas practices) as the key feature. Beginning in the late 20th century, however, Halloween began to be more of an adult occasion for excess. It's an night for young adults, especially, and LGBTQ folks, in particular, to engage in fun and outrageous behavior.
I live in a neighborhood that is perfect for trick-or-treating, with picturesque homes and lots of children. So, Cait and Scott usually bring Nova over to my house, which can do a pretty good Hansel and Gretel, for this holiday. Liza, who is Wiccan, normally does an elaborate Samhain with her "coven"; in her first autumn in Boston, she went to Salem with a friend (and was very disappointed at how little that town was doing—talk about a missed business opportunity).
We all dress up. It's a big deal. Nova talks about it even more than Christmas all year, constantly changing her mind about what she will "go as" and assigning coordinating costumes to her father and mother. Last year, their family went as characters from Harry Potter, but I went as a "fairy grandmother," in a costume I won't show you because it was not very attractive. This year, we four are going as vampires.
COVID, of course, poses a challenge for Halloween celebrations because they are fundamentally a group activity, whether for children or adults. The main innovation is "trunk-or-treating," where families in the same bubble gather in a parking lot and the kids go from car to car. Or, as Nova's school is doing, they will make a kind of carnival space with crafts and treats, everyone in costume. (This is probably safe, as the school is basically led by doctors and hasn't had a single case, but it's going to be freezing tonight, so not terribly comfortable. I am sitting this part out, for both COVID and comfort reasons.)
In Boston, Liza's bubble is going to celebrate Samhain with special fall foods, drinks, and spells. She is going as a "Girl Beetlejuice." (Not to be overshadowed, the vampires are going to build a fire in the backyard pit and do spells of our own.) We are shameless about Halloween.
The rest of my family is quarantining and, as far as I know, will not be dressing up. They, too, however, have an enthusiasm for costumes. The best example was the turnout for Liza's wedding, held on Halloween in 2014. Liza spent eight years in the costume shop for the San Francisco Opera, so the wedding guests had a high representation of serious costumiers. You can imagine how over-the-top this wedding was, between the witches and the theater people—and Liza's family.
The competition was stiff, but I would say we put in a very good showing. My sister Kathy was probably the most imaginative of the night, in an elaborate costume of her own design, with a skull-and-crossbones corset, trimmed with candy corn, and a tiny little hat perched on her updo that had a black cat crouched on the crown. My other sister, Susan, went as Medusa and deserved kudos for her slinky snake-hair and dress. I went as Carmen San Diego, at my children's suggestion: "Because we never know where in the world you are, Mom."
I guess we come by all this naturally. My mother went to Stephens College in the Midwest and studied costume design. She wanted a career in theatre, but when my grandparents found out, Granny wrote that they were not paying for her to be there preparing for a career, but getting her ready to find a good (read: high-earning) husband. The next year, she went to the University of Texas and got busy. She married my father the next summer, having fulfilled her prescribed destiny by landing a soon-to-be doctor.
We have always felt the poignant tragedy of frustrated dreams in that story. We now take some comfort in today's resolution of it: Liza is studying costume at Boston University now. Her bubble will probably be as impressive, from a costume perspective, as her wedding was.
My mother's talents were redirected into making clothes for herself and her children, as well as redecorating a series of houses. It became a fabulous tradition that we chose all our own fabrics and patterns and she was able to take a sleeve from here and put it on a bodice from there. My sisters both picked up her talents, but I did not (though I do ok with the house).
So it's fair to say that we are a family of costumiers, ready for any excuse to dress as someone or something else. We'll be observing this holiday, despite COVID, as best we can.
Happy Samhain, everybody, and a cool Halloween.