Halloween was one of the most anticipated days of the year when I was a child. I remember months of agony spent trying to decide on a costume. My mom was always willing to help me create something spectacular, even during the years I came up with fairly off-the-wall ideas. I was a bat, a fried egg, a skunk, a clown, and even Shamu. There was something magical about inhabiting a costume for the day–the ability to simultaneously be myself while also trying on some other identity. By the time I hit junior high I knew my dress-up days were done; I was too old for trick-or-treating and too self-conscious to appear in public in costume. Then I got to high school and discovered that dressing up was cool again; Halloween is the perfect holiday for high-schoolers, given that they are constantly trying on new roles, new forms of appearance, and new identities. When I was in high school I thought Halloween would be my opportunity to transform myself into something entirely new. Unfortunately, things never turned out quite the way I dreamed they would.
My first year in high school I tried being a princess. I had found an old prom dress at a thrift store and made myself a pointy hat out of cardboard covered in a piece of satin found in my mother’s fabric stash. Sadly, the day was rainy and cold, my hat wouldn’t stay on my head, and my glasses ruined the romantic, medieval look I was going for. The next year I tried going as a lady from Victorian England. I cobbled together an outfit from a long skirt, ruffled blouse with a cameo at the neck, a large hat, and ankle boots. Once again, instead of seeing a glamorous, mysterious figure in the mirror, I only saw myself staring back at me. As I think back two decades, I realize that my choice of costumes reflects the yearnings I felt as a young teenager; I wanted to be sophisticated and beautiful. I wanted to have people notice me and pay attention to me, but I also struggled with my need to follow the teachings of the gospel and my obliviousness to social cues. I often felt torn between a desire to be ‘right’ (as I interpreted it) and to be liked and accepted. Generally I felt most comfortable living according to my own peculiar internal rules, but the sting of social rejection was always present. As a junior in high school I did hit the sweet spot of costumes when I dressed up as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and spent all day basking in the compliments I received for the outfit I had spent hours sewing (and I spent all day strewing red glitter across the school as it flaked off the ruby slippers I had made myself).
Now that I am an adult I have felt no desire to dress up in a Halloween costume for years. Occasionally I have grudgingly put on a few things to fit into a family theme or to not look like a total Grinch at the ward party, but I’d rather just get Halloween over with so we can move on to planning for Thanksgiving. At the same time, I now have three young children who are still firmly in the magical phase of costuming. Last year my daughter, who was 2 ½, was a pink butterfly, and her wire wings (now rather tattered) are still in regular use. She remains convinced that she will actually be a pink butterfly when she grows up. My son expresses his personality by choosing difficult costumes; two years ago he was a haunted house. This year he wants to be a Lego Harry Potter figure. Not a Lego figure and not Harry Potter (we had a long discussion about this)—those options are too easy and too obvious. And my oldest, who is now ten, is putting together a costume based on a character from a book she is writing. I watch her struggle to move what is in her imagination into reality and realize that she is losing some of the magic of childhood. She is moving into the more mature world where our dreams don’t always come true and we aren’t always what we deeply wish we could be. A pair of bent wire wings would never be enough to turn her into a butterfly.
Last year I worked at a job where Halloween was a big deal; we had a costume contest, gave out candy, and everyone who worked there was encouraged to dress up. I decided to compromise—I didn’t wear a costume, but I put on an orange shirt with a black skirt and finished the outfit off with orange-striped knee socks. Then, at the urging of my kids, I sprayed orange glitter all over my hair and borrowed my daughter’s headband that had bats sticking out of it. I felt self-conscious walking into work like that, especially since I sprinkled orange glitter behind me everywhere I went. But, as the day went on, I started to feel transformed. I laughed and joked with people who had come for the costume contest; I clowned around for the camera; I complimented passers-by on their outfits. I was still myself, only a much more friendly, relaxed, and enthusiastic version of myself. The goofiness of my outfit helped me to not take myself and the people around me so seriously. The next day I was back at work, mostly glitter-free, and back to my usual rule-enforcement and generally serious demeanor. I won’t be dressing up this year, but reflecting on last year’s experience makes me wonder if I can find other ways to be occasionally be someone besides my usual self.
How do you feel about dressing up for Halloween? Love it? Hate it? If you don’t live in the United States, do you live somewhere that has traditions involving costumes?