When Holidays Were Fun

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Recently I was thinking about how, when I was a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. I liked candy, of course, and being given it was way better than spending my allowance on it, but more than that, I loved dressing up. I thought about what I was going to be for weeks in advance, and I always made my own costume (or at least the 10-15% of it that wasn’t made by my mom). I remember being a black cat a few times, wearing a leotard and stuffing half a set of tights with cotton batting, then safety-pinning it to my butt to make a tail. I remember being a clown, which I somehow enjoyed despite having to wear a layer of really uncomfortable grease paint that felt like I’d smeared butter all over my face and a horrible Ronald McDonald wig. I even remember having fun as the Grim Reaper, even though I didn’t wear the hooded rubber mask that pretty much was the costume (a hand-me-down from my brother, Grim Reaper the Elder) for most of the trick-or-treating because it was too hot. I also got really into carving pumpkins — one happy face and one scary face were de rigeur every year — and trying to decorate our house in some creepy way, mostly by propping something in the window, like the aforementioned grim reaper mask on a stick after I was done with it, or clothes stuffed with other clothes and posed to conjure someone headless. It’s kind of funny that Halloween was my jam considering that I was not generally into scary things; I didn’t like horror movies (except for a brief period in high school, but that came later) or haunted houses (except for the one at Disneyland that wasn’t actually scary). I guess it was the opportunity to use my imagination and get all artsy-craftsy about it that made the holiday appealing for me. And the Tootsie Rolls.

This love of Halloween diminished somewhat in high school, when I was trying to avoid candy (although my passing interest in caving to peer pressure did lead me to see A Nightmare On Elm Street in the theater with my friends, an experience which scarred me for life. Note to teens: do not see this film if you are going to come home to a dark and empty house afterwards because your brother is away at college and your parents are out to dinner, JUST DON’T DO IT). It reemerged in college, however, because Stanford had a great Halloween party every year at the Stanford Mausoleum, where Leland Stanford Jr. and his parents are buried. I know, it sounds macabre, how they’d get a DJ and everyone would dress up and go dance on the poor kid’s grave, but tell me that isn’t that just exactly how Halloween is supposed to be! My freshman year roommate and I made a plan to go together, as soap and toothpaste. We took this very seriously, going to stay with her sister in Oakland for the weekend where we could get materials at an art supply store — mostly paint and lots of white vinyl — and construct our costumes. We looked pretty amazing, even if, as a bar of Ivory Soap, being large, square and somewhat rigid wasn’t great for dancing, or sex appeal (the shower cap that topped it off didn’t help). Still, the shtick I came up with of going around blowing bubbles and telling everyone that I was 99.9% pure kind of made up for it. I had an awesome time.

That was when I discovered the other appeal of Halloween: using the costume to be not just an animal, harbinger of death, or household product, but a different kind of person: someone bold, who walked up and talked to random people of she felt like it; someone, if not sexy, then at least someone who actually knew how to flirt. This was to make Halloween my favorite holiday again, or at least in the top three, for the next couple of decades. Post college, when it became harder to meet people in the real world, where you needed an excuse to go to parties with strangers and start conversations with them, wearing an inventive costume became even more of a way of getting outside of my self-consciousness and my comfort zone. I wasn’t comfortable doing things to get guys’ (or really anyone’s) attention in my everyday life, but on Halloween, I could become someone who didn’t look, talk, or act like me, who was totally fine with it. For example, one thing I’d do was pull out the clothes from my closet that I’d bought in fits of feistiness but that I didn’t normally have the courage to wear and see how they could be turned into a costume. One year, using a plastic gold halo I’d acquired in Santa Fe as the jumping off point, I dressed up in all of the white or transparent sample sale items I’d acquired and called myself “The Angel of Park Slope.” Another time, I pulled out a slinky silver shirt that felt like it was made out of petroleum that I couldn’t resist buying but had only worn once (on New Years of course) and a matching very short silver skirt from a thrift shop that I covered in cloud-like cotton batting and became “A Silver Lining.” And it tended to pay off: between the outfits and the attitude, I always talked to strangers, and often gave out my number. The dates never led much of anywhere, but neither did most of the dates I had in my 20s and 30s. Halloween meant casting myself in a new role, and that meant possibility.

The holiday started to get less fun when parties in general got less fun: when I got into a serious relationship. Parties could still be good, if there were friends and good food and alcohol and perhaps dancing, but they no longer had the same excitement. Now, meeting new people was all about — uuggghhhh — networking. In between boyfriends, I did do Halloween again (and did meet some more unsuitable men that way), but now that I’m married, I’m no longer looking to be sexy flirty me-not-me, and I’m basically too old, tired and lazy to dress up for any other reason (certainly for candy). What did we do this year for Halloween? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We had been planning to be away that weekend and then didn’t go, which you could say was an excuse, but really, we just didn’t have any reason to make any effort whatsoever. Kids don’t trick-or-treat in our building, so we didn’t even have to pretend to care.

And by and large, this is true of other holidays too. Chanukah (if you’ve read this, you already know how I feel about Christmas) certainly has very little appeal these days, now that I am officially a-religious (when I was a kid my family pretty much was too, but we still went through the motions for the sake of tradition, which I have even less of in my life now that I’m married to a non-Jewish atheist) and getting presents is more about having people buy me either exactly what I’ve told them that I want, which is useful but not very festive, or things that I have no use for that I have to pretend (poorly) to like. I still like July 4th because I still like barbecues and fireworks, but getting to a place where you can see the fireworks in NYC is generally way more trouble than it’s worth — and let’s face it, this is true of most holidays in our fair city, especially if there is a parade, which more or less officially makes whatever holiday it is into Excuse For Public Drunkenness Day. Birthdays are fraught as I’ve also written about before, and you are no doubt aware if you’re anywhere close to or, God forbid, beyond 40. Valentine’s Day has shown some improvement, since it’s a holiday I never liked, so I guess I dislike it less than before or at least feel more neutral about it now that I’m married, but again, celebrating it in NYC? Nightmare. And that goes triple for New Years. The only holiday that retains something of its former luster, for me, is Thanksgiving, because my enjoyment of cooking and eating really hasn’t diminished, thank goodness, and I’ve never had to host one myself so the cooking part is minimal.

Now, of course, if I had kids, this would be totally different. Once you have children, you are fully licensed to regress and enjoy the things you used to like — dressing up, presents, decorating, playing games — by participating in them with your kids. I’ve gotten a small taste of this with friends’ kids and my nephews. Going trick-or-treating with them, opening presents, even tree decorating (which I never did as a kid) was fun for a while. Eventually, though, those children started to outgrow the occasion, and I started to feel like a sad wannabe who had to borrow someone else’s kids to somehow enjoy being one again myself. I’m also at that weird, limbo point in life where people wonder why I don’t have kids if I’m seen hanging out with them, and feeling like I need to come to a holiday armed with some explanation of my career choices and fertility woes definitely diminishes the sense of carefree enjoyment which was supposed to be the point.

I suppose holidays are like everything else: before I became a grown-up and things got complicated, they were easy, and now, they really aren’t any more — and probably never will be again. Different things matter to me now, which is not all bad, considering some of the things that used to matter to me were how many snack size candy bars I could amass in under three hours and how I looked in heels. Something worth celebrating when I was eight, like getting a new tooth, or even when I was 21, like finishing a 20-page paper or knocking a ping-pong ball into someone else’s beer, just don’t seem to be as big a deal any more, compared to, say, finishing my first documentary, or finding some really nice juice glasses. And maybe it’s not so bad that the idea of “fun” once represented by getting drunk and trying to get unavailable men to notice me has now been replaced by something I can do any time I have a day off. Is Binging on the New Aziz Ansari Show While Eating Korean-Style Short Ribs I Made in the Crockpot Day at thing? Well, maybe it should be. And even if it isn’t, it’s what we are doing tonight.

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