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An ode to family costumes

| Wednesday, November 1, 2023

A college campus is supposedly the best place to celebrate Halloween. Indeed, the parties, the costumes at football games and the general buzz of Halloweekend are exciting. A renewed excuse to go “all out” for a holiday that might have been dormant since childhood. But every year on Halloween, I am overcome by an acute wave of homesickness. I miss the lame ritual of trick-or-treating and my grandparents’ grill out.

Let me explain: Since I was about ten, my family has done group Halloween costumes each year. I can’t even remember how it started, but it is perhaps my most treasured family tradition.

My dad is the real champion of our costumes. He combs over screencaps from the movies we imitate, noting every detail of every piece of clothing required. He has very high standards for the type of costume we choose: it must be 1) recognizable and 2) not trendy. Anything overdone that year is immediately out of the question (so, regrettably, no Barbie and Ken this October). And anything too simplistic leads him to think we won’t stand out.

In our inaugural year, we did “Back to the Future.” My youngest brother, then probably four years old, was Marty McFly in a miniature red vest, and all the girls wore poodle skirts. We’ve done “Harry Potter,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Goonies,” with my youngest brother dressing up as Dobby, Augustus Gloop and Chunk, respectively. (He is usually the butt of the joke — sorry Reid.) Our best costume was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” complete with Todd and Margo, the boss in his pajamas and a stuffed squirrel attached to my dad’s back.

For my dad, the big test is the moment we walk up to the neighborhood party. Before Halloween night, my siblings and I are sworn to secrecy. Our family costumes are sacred, planned at the kitchen table or in hushed tones in the mall. No one can know because my dad wants to see if our family and friends will know what our costume is immediately. 

They usually don’t. My grandmother, though she tries, is not the most in touch with pop culture, and my neighborhood has more elderly couples than kids. We are reduced to pointing at the most obvious costume and waiting for a flash of recognition.

I think it breaks my dad’s heart a little every time we aren’t recognized, but to me, that’s far from the point. The point is doing something kind of embarrassing as a family. I hadn’t chosen my own Halloween costume for nearly a decade until I moved to college, but if I had to wear an ill-fitting wig or obnoxious metallic tracksuit, then that was my fate. In the words of my wise mother: “It’s Halloween, everyone’s uncomfortable.” I couldn’t be embarrassed about my costume when my dad dyed his beard bright orange or my sister wore a fake mustache. Each year, the camaraderie eased my teenage apprehensions. 

Like every family, we argued all the time about “forced family fun” — someone has friends to hang out with or someone has practice. But I can’t remember ever arguing about Halloween costumes. It was always a given, and since moving to college, I really miss it. 

Of course, group costumes at school are very popular. I think it’s for the same reasons — it’s okay to have a stupid or funny costume if all your friends are in it with you. But when my friends agree to dress up with me, the reminder of what I’m missing at home brings a little more heft to the planning process. At the risk of sounding saccharine, my friends become my family each Halloween. In college, our friends are like family year-round, providing support and someone to eat dinner with, but the feeling rings truer for me on Halloween. So thanks, guys, for dressing up with me this year. It meant more than you know.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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