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The Great Divide: A Healthy Halloween

By Tina Traster

October 29, 2009 -- Chances are you remember Halloween the way I do if you're a baby boomer who grew up in Brooklyn or anywhere urban. Houses were decorated with cardboard witches, black cats and skeletons with moving limbs. On the night of Hallows Eve, we dressed in home-spun costumes. Dad snapped a couple of Polaroids. We took plastic orange pumpkins door-to-door for fillings. Back home, mom scoured the booty. Apples were tossed because of razor scares, as was anything unpackaged. Only "safe" candy was left, the packaged junk made from chemicals and preservatives.

The next morning we wiped runny egg yolks and shaving cream off car windows.

I stopped liking the holiday in my college days when on a particularly cold Halloween night I dressed in fishnet tights and a skimpy flapper's dress. A bunch of us traipsed through Boston from party to party. The wind whipping off the Charles River made me miserable. The next day I had swollen glands the size of pumpkins. I vowed to skip Halloween from that point forward.

Certain things are beyond your control when you become a parent. You lose sleep, worry a lot and embrace Halloween, even if it is your least favorite holiday.

My daughter starts thinking about Halloween the day summer camp ends. "This year I'm going to be a ghost," she says. A week later, it's Junie B. Jones. Closer to Halloween it's something else. Who can remember? Give her a week, it will change.

By October 1, Halloween has broken out in suburbia. Folks take out bicycle pumps and plump up those colossal plastic pumpkins and ghosts that bobble from strings tethered to lawns. On windy days, they deflate these fine ornaments, lest they maim someone, the way the Macy's Day Parade Cat in the Hat balloon did several years ago. Halloween stores open in every strip mall. Orange is everywhere.

I like driving past the house on Broadway that erects a creepily-lit Dickensian cemetery. If you're going to do Halloween, do it right.

I'm the Scrooge of Halloween. I dread the holiday though I know it's unavoidable. The ghosts of Halloween Past visit. So on the weekend before the 31st we go to one of those jam-packed holiday stores where bloody rubber hands reach for you as you squeeze along the crowded aisles. Personally I'm more afraid of the long lines snaking from the check-out counter. Meanwhile my daughter is manically hyperventilating over whether to be a cat or Dorothy or a bumble bee. "I want this one, no wait this one, wait, how about this one?" she says. "Can I buy two costumes Mommy?"

"Choose one," I say, "and do it fast." On line I grumble into my husband's ear "$30 for this piece of crap?" "You could make a costume," he says. I swear I will, just as I did last year when we were on line paying for the ladybug costume.

Days before Halloween, my husband does the annual pumpkin carve. There is something utterly endearing about this ritual. I like that we have picked the pumpkin from a patch at a local farm. I like that the project involves nothing more than a magic marker and a carving knife. I like that my husband, who grew up in my same neighborhood, knows how to carve a pumpkin.

Last year my daughter drew cat features on the pumpkin. Then my husband sheared off the pumpkin lid and gutted it. I roasted the seeds while he performed surgery. When he was done we put a candle in the center, darkened the house and made scary ghost noises over lit Jack O'Lantern.

The next thing I'm going to say will alarm the Perfect-Parenting Brigade. My daughter has never gone trick-or-treating. Why? Because she is not allowed to eat the packaged crap that food manufacturers call candy, also known as food. It seems pointless to collect a pumpkin full of stuff just to dump it. To even contemplate why people can't hand out healthy snacks is too existential an exercise.

Instead, I try to make every Halloween memorable. Which isn't that difficult because I live close to historic homes in the Hudson Valley that resurrect Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other Halloween lore in a big way. Best of all is the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson. The theatrical geniuses behind this extravaganza hand-carve thousands of pumpkins, which are set up along a path around the 18th-century manor house. It is wonderfully eerie. It is a masterpiece. It is eye candy. Visually appetizing with no harmful chemicals or preservatives.

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