Opening Letters

COLUMN: Día de los Muertos

while Halloween celebrates costumes and candy, it’s also a celebration of youthfulness and life in the shadow of death

authors by John Hildebrand, illustrated by Jake Huffcutt |

For adults, halloween is a holiday that serves as an opportunity to look absolutely ridiculous. For my last-ever Halloween party, I paired a tuxedo with a Mexican wrestler’s mask. When I shouldered my way into the host’s kitchen, people quickly exited. Turns out a luchador’s mask worn atop a crisp black tuxedo can make anyone look threatening. Something to do with the eyeholes. 

As a child’s holiday, Halloween is a pint-sized saturnalia in which nearly all rules are magically dispensed. The first time a parent explains it, the child must feel his leg is being pulled.

“Tonight you’ll wear a funny costume, wander in the dark, and ring strangers’ doorbells shouting ‘Trick or treat!’ Then you’ll get a treat.”

“What about the trick?”

“Don’t worry. There’s never a trick.”

Part of halloween's magic is the chance it gives children to briefly be something they aren't – spacemen, princesses, zombies – simply by choosing a costume.


Part of Halloween’s magic is the chance it gives children to briefly be something they aren’t – spacemen, princesses, zombies – simply by choosing a costume.

In our house, there were only two choices: army man or clown. My brother transformed into the former by putting on our father’s oversized Eisenhower jacket, webbed belt, helmet, and grimacing. By default, I got the baggy, polka-dot clown outfit he’d worn the previous year. I didn’t have to smile because my mother drew a lunatic grin on my face with a tube of lipstick. Then we hit the sidewalk together like Tragedy and Comedy.

Every silver lining has its dark cloud, and ours was Sister Mary So-and-So. In parochial school that week, she informed us that Halloween was, in fact, All Hallow’s Eve since it preceded All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 1 and 2 – holy days in which the living were to remember the departed. The holiday breaks the barrier between the living and the dead, she said, serving as a dedication to the deceased. Students looked bleakly back at the nun because one, we didn’t know any departed and, two, we were focused on the candy.

The late October darkness turned our quiet, elm-vaulted streets into a sinister warren of by-ways. My brother, who’d literally been around the block, led the way. He’d punch a doorbell, shout “trick or treat” and go into his military grimace. I, on the other hand, stood mute in the porchlight, an unresponsive clown holding a Wrigley’s grocery bag. When we reached the highway that marked both neighborhood boundary and end of the known world, we headed home. For days, my brother and I gorged on Baby Ruths and Good & Plentys, tucking our Halloween bags under twin beds in case we needed a midnight snack. The feasting lasted until one night, our father stormed into the bedroom, confiscated our haul, and announced the candy would remain hostage until we learned some self-control.

It was hard to say if we ever did, because a month later our father passed away unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He’d survived war in Europe a decade earlier only to die in his sleep, and the parade of aunts and uncles who’d driven to our house only two weeks earlier for Thanksgiving now made a steady, somber return. 

Years went by. My brother and I proved useless around the house, avoiding chores as any reasonable child would. One summer, we were wrangled into chores when our visiting uncle supervised a garage cleaning. It was hot, dusty work emptying wooden shelves piled high with canvas tents, broken badminton rackets, coils of garden hose, and baby jars filled with nuts and bolts. Then, stuffed behind everything on the top shelf, we uncovered two grease-stained Wrigley’s bags. The chalky chocolate bars and faded Good & Plenty’s lay nestled inside, smelling both sweet and rancid in the heat of the garage. It set off a whole series of connections that added up, in my mind, to a cosmic trick.

These days, my wife and I take turns handing out Halloween treats from our front porch. Sometimes she’ll wear a costume, but I’ve stopped. Not that a lucha libre mask ever frightened the kids, but it seemed to make their hovering parents a little nervous.

Something, I think, about the eyes.