If you stop and think about it, there are not a lot of explicit demands on us to be sociable neighbors. And I don’t mean responsible neighbors, where you’re expected to pick up after your dog, keep your yard cleaned up, that kind of thing. No. I mean being social and friendly.
The one day of the year that seems to call for this is Halloween. It’s the one and only holiday, for certain, and really the only day where our communities ask us to keep the lights on and willingly open our front door.
This really struck me a couple years ago when I took my young daughter out trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. We thought we’d work our way down the hill — stopping at homes along the way — toward our friend’s house a few blocks down. To her disappointment and my dismay, we encountered one dark house after the next, creating whole stretches that were desolate and cold. To me, that was scarier than any fake skeleton or styrofoam gravestone. It wasn’t just a signal of neighborhood non-participation, but a kind of rebuff of the neighbors.
I thought, how hard is it, really, to buy a $3.99 bag of candy and leave your porch light on? This is a simple, affordable act of good will that helps build a feeling of community. It signals that you are present and open to your surroundings, and not adverse to interacting with people you may not know — but who, most likely — are your actual neighbors.
In the course of my research and my life, I’ve encountered a lot of people who tell me they lived in their suburban neighborhood for years without ever meeting the neighbors two or three doors down. It’s not something they are proud of, but it’s just evolved that way.. like a social dynamic on auto-pilot. We live our lives, we are busy, we are tired, we want our peace and quiet. Some people deliberately prefer the insulation. But the social costs tend to add up, as they work to alienate our communities and ourselves. (I’ll write more about this, in future blog posts.)
But back to Halloween. One survey reported in Statista found that 67.8 percent of Americans (ages 18 and older) plan to hand out candy, and 41 percent said they are going to carve a pumpkin. That is encouraging. Maybe at the macro-level, things look better than they appear on the ground. Still, even one out of three houses dark seems a little discouraging to me. Where we live, this statistical pattern shows up like this: whole stretches go dark, then others are teeming with elaborately festooned houses, running kids, and light everywhere. But you have to walk through the darkness to get there.
I have to admit that I’ve never liked the ghoulish aspects of Halloween — I still cringe when I see our little foam gravestone on our front lawn, which just seems morbid to me. But I willingly schlep it out every year, along with the orange lights, the white ghost, and other dood-dads. And I buy that bag or two of candy. We’re lucky if we get 3-4 groups of kids at our door every year. But I’ll always keep that light on no matter what.