"What - all you have is candy?"
It was Halloween night, last year. We were trick-or-treating and my then 3 year old, suited to the hilt in shining armor, had marched up our neighbor's walk with all the swagger of a knight on his steed. Little did they know what was coming.
But what may have sounded like an impertinent question to my neighbor brought a grin of victory to me. You see, my little man has a mast cell activation disorder that leads him to have immunological reactions similar in ways to allergic reactions whenever he is exposed to any food outside of the 15 to which he has been successfully desensitized. Candy isn't one of his fifteen.
His big brother, struggling with pronounced histamine intolerance and gluten intolerance, isn't much better off when it comes to the Halloween stash. Take out dairy, gluten, soy, artificial colors and preservatives (all of which are high in histamine) and you're left with a pretty small selection.
With that combination, you'd think Halloween would be a nightmare at our house - a holiday for lying down and avoiding.
But that's not really our style.
Instead, following the principle of "go big or go home," we became known as one of the two "big Halloween houses" in our Halloween-crazed neighborhood.
It all started back when our older child was a mere tot, long before we knew that anyone in our family - myself included - had any food restrictions. He was a very social little lad - so much so that I couldn't imagine him being willing to let us simply open the door and hand out candy to random children without following them down the walk and off into the black Halloween night.
Taking what looked at the time like the path of least resistance, we decided to throw the "1st Annual Viirand Family Halloween Lawn Party". We picked a theme (it was cowboys that year) got appropriate costumes for each of us and then dressed up the front of the house as a "Wild West Ghost Town", complete with a ghoul on a haystack, "cooking up" cauldrons of candy over a "campfire" made from holiday lights nestled among logs on the bottom of our fire pit.
It was a smashing success: at the end of the night, our little tot was still firmly planted right where he belonged, and we had a new reputation in the neighborhood as "the cool Halloween theme house" to uphold for years to come.
And the years did come - we did trains (complete with steam engine sounds piped from our iPod), space, dinosaurs and cavemen, Star Wars and, the year our little one was born, spiders and Spiderman (complete with inter-generational Peter Parkers). As we did so, our reputation in the neighborhood only grew. Little kids rolling along in wagons in the middle of summer would call out to me as I worked in the garden, shouting "You're the trains house - what are you doing this year?"
Somewhere along the way, food restrictions entered our world. It was clear to us that Halloween, long the holiday of 'costumes and candy', would need another new twist.
But with our family's special tradition, it was an easy tweak to make - even an improvement. Instead of handing out candy, we ordered an assortment of little trinkets from Oriental Trading Company - always in our family's chosen theme. Like 1" high space alien figurines, glow-in-the-dark spider rings or plastic toy dinosaurs and dino tattoos.
When we did so, something magical happened. For the kids coming up our walk, we went from "the theme house" to "the theme house with the cool goodies". On a good year, we would easily see 250 kids - and that was before the teens who made a B-line to get the cool trinkets at our house were unleashed. Sure, new kids to the neighborhood would look at our goody basket with confusion, trying to figure out where was the candy - but they'd quickly "get it" when their comrades pushed past to see the year's theme and what trinkets they could choose.
As for the kids on the inside - my kids, the ones with all the food restrictions - the joy of Halloween came not in going door-to-door but in answering our own door. And the holiday became less about candy and more about the experience of creating a self-contained little fantasy world, where they got to be somebody else in some other time-space continuum, with Mom and Dad and brother and even the puppy dog, too.
So when our little man walked up our unsuspecting neighbor's walk last year and was not so much disappointed as unimpressed to discover that all they had was candy, I knew that our re-creation of America's candy holiday was complete. What had started out as a ploy to keep a young tot from toddling off had turned into a lifelife, a tradition that made it easy for us to keep the magic in Halloween when our kids' food restrictions threatened to take it away.
This year, we face a new challenge. In late August, we moved to a new community, on a street where the houses are more spread out and most of the other kids are older now. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see that this isn't going to be the big trick-or-treating mecca that our old street was. I'll admit that for my husband and myself, this brought a sigh of relief. Halloween, as you can imagine, had become an all-consuming (and frankly fairly expensive) circus. We're glad to not be negotiating a theme with two strongly-opinionated children, or pouring over websites trying to find the best price on large, blow-up dinosaurs.
We'll still put out our family ghoul, and we've got some bloodshot eyeball super balls to hand out to any adventurous kids who come our way. And this year we'll add a teal pumpkin to let food allergy kids know that they are just as welcome at our new house as they always were at the old. After all, for years now, custom eater kids have been the star of our Halloween show.
But we'll have to find some new traditions this year, too. Ones that fit in with our new street, surreptitiously planting the seed here, too that there are other ways to do Halloween, ones that are healthier and more inclusive, too.
I hear one of the neighbors is hosting a potluck party in the woods. I think I'll bring something that glows in the dark. That'll look cooler than candy any day.