With Halloween fast approaching, my stress level is on the rise and my attitude is already beginning to turn sour. It’s not that I don’t like Halloween. I do. As a poor kid, with too much time on my hands and a nonfunctioning moral compass (does any twelve year-old even know they have one?), I used the occasion to embrace my budding capitalist tendencies and apply them in the spirit of this give-and-take holiday. I pilfered money from UNICEF.
Before you go judging me as some common thief and writing me off as a bad seed from the other side of the tracks, I have two things to say in my defense. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was really vague on the rules of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Unlike the cub scout popcorn scam, where we knew upfront that we’d only get to keep a few pennies of every dollar we made and pretty sure that our dad’s would pocket the rest for beer and cigarettes, the only rule of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF that I understood was that I’d go knocking on doors like a beggar and the money would be outsourced to some foreign country. I didn’t think my dad, who was the vice-president of the USA (not of the country, but more importantly of the local union aligned with the United Steelworkers of America) would approve of sending money overseas when the struggle to make ends meet in our own Polish, working class community was so great
Also in my defense, I had no idea what the acronym UNICEF actually stood for or what the donations were actually being used for. I don’t know if I understood guilt and repentance at age twelve any more than I understood the concept of a moral compass, but somewhere on my path to junior high, I stopped Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF. Partly because something didn’t feel right about what I was doing, and partly because it was just too much work.
But it’s not the memory of my criminal adolescent years during Halloween that’s gotten me so worked up. It’s that Halloween, in my family anyway, marks the kickoff of a two-month holiday season. One that we celebrate in a single event I’ve come to refer to as Hallowthanksmas.
My parents bought a second house in Florida and became snowbirds, so they leave Michigan in early November and don’t come back until May. Because of their early departure, we no longer enjoy the holidays one at a time but “celebrate” them all in one awkward weekend. No candy, no whatever you get at Thanksgiving, and no presents. The new tradition in our family is to remove any trace of tradition from the event and avoid all the headache and hassle of the holiday season. For the adults, this is a joy-sucking event. For the kids, it’s just plain weird. For Philip, well for Philip, he just brings enough vino and Vicodin to get him through the weekend.
Back when he and I first met, and when my family celebrated Thanksgiving as its own holiday, I tried to start a new tradition. I’ve always been a sucker for both ritual and practical jokes, so I thought this would be as good a time as any to bring my two passions together. I knew my family was on board with at least one of those, so I let them in on my plan. Just as all sixteen of us sat down to eat, I announced that before we eat, our family tradition is that each person stands up and says what they’re thankful for. And the newest member of the family always goes first.
The car ride home was incredibly quiet that year, but my little tradition, which only lasted that one time, endeared Philip to my family and in some odd way became his rite of passage. He really should have thanked me.
Without tradition, a holiday, even Hallowthanksmas, just isn’t as fun. If you don’t believe me, ask Frank Costganza, who created a holiday called Festivus.
For those of you who aren’t aware of the absolute truth that NBC Thursday’s were “Must See TV” in the 90’s, let me explain. Festivus was a holiday we were introduced to on Seinfeld. George’s dad, Frank, created Festivus as another way to celebrate the holiday season without participating in its pressures and commercialism. The holiday is marked by erecting an aluminum pole and engaging in such activities as the “Airing of Grievances,” and “Feats of Strength.” The airing of grievances takes place as soon as the meal is served when each person tells everyone else all the ways in which they have disappointed them in the past year. Immediately after the meal, feats of strength are performed, where one person is chosen to wrestle the head of the household. The holiday doesn’t end until the head of the household is pinned to the floor. (Wikipedia has a complete summary of that episode).
If Hallowthanksmas is ever going to take hold as a Barnett family holiday the way Festivus did in the Costanza house, then it, too, needs some purposeful tradition attached to it. Since Philip and I are heading to the great up-north this weekend to spend Hallowthanksmas with my family, there’s no time like the present to bring a few ideas to the table. I like the idea of “the airing of grievances” as we sit down to dinner, but my family avoids confrontation like the Amish avoid electricity. The only one who would dare stand up and air his grievances is Philip, and after the Thanksgiving stunt I pulled on him, I’m not ready to take that chance.
“Feats of strength” is out, too, because my dad is six foot four and almost two hundred and fifty pounds.” The only thing that would bring him down is a tranquilizer dart, and even though he has more than sixty guns in his collection, he doesn’t own a tranquilizer gun. Well, not that I know of anyway.
The kickoff activity for Hallowthanksmas is called “Nuclear Family Fusion” where we pull something from each holiday and bring it together in a combined ritual. Half the family will dress in Native American garb, (my dad can make a few loin cloths from one of his dear skins) and half the family will dress as pilgrims. Aside from the uncomfortable shoes and the lack of fabulous color, I’m pretty sure Philip will choose to be a Pilgrim and forgo the embarrassment of wearing my dad’s homemade loin cloth. The Native Americans will present the pilgrims with hand-made gifts, like afghans or doilies or tissue boxes with hand-stitched turkeys on each of the four sides. In return, the pilgrims will ask for candy.
To avoid permanent damage to the children, they will be sent off, shabbily dressed and with good walking shoes—my parents live in the country—to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. This will give the adults just enough time to complete the final Hallowthanksmus ritual. It’s called “Motorcycle Mamma.”
The toughest person in the family, without a doubt, is my mother, even though she’s five foot four and barely a hundred and twenty pounds. She will defend the family honor by challenging the rest of her clan to a Run-In. Wearing motorcycle helmets and standing fifteen paces apart, challenged and challenger will charge toward each other, meeting at the center of the living room in a ferocious head-butt. The event will continue until one of the challengers brings Motorcycle Mamma to her knees. As their reward, the winner will receive the total amount of UNICEF money collected by the children. What they do with the money will be determined solely by their own moral compass.
I don’t expect my ideas to take hold in one year, or at all for that matter. But if nothing else it might convince my parents to bring sanity back to the holidays by staying home until New Years and returning to a more traditional celebration of the holidays. Wish me luck!