The first time I — and many other New Yorkers — went out after 9/11 to do anything deliberately fun was on Halloween. How could we bear to celebrate a holiday about death that year? The city was lighter than usual on grim reapers and grave kitsch in shop windows. There was talk that Halloween should be cancelled, that it was too soon, and that there was nothing funny about ghosts. Would it create more fear to have so many unrecognizable people out on the streets? Would the crowds provide cover for terrorists? Would it be disrespectful to have a good time? Death was serious and not about stuffing your face with candy.
Plastic skeletons and tombstones are Halloween’s decor, but they aren’t the message. If you want to know whether a holiday is really about life or death, ask yourself: does it come with dessert? All the best ones do.
Eating is central to the business of life, and we celebrate the sweetness of that life with dessert. As a pastry chef and the founder of CocoaVino, the first eco-luxury chocolate company making bonbons and confections with fair trade, organic, and locally farm-sourced ingredients, sweets were my life. I relished the sugar-laden aspect of holidays.
There are apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, milky sweets for Diwali, candy for Halloween, sugar skulls and pan de muerto for Day of the Dead, pumpkin pie (and apple, and pecan) at Thanksgiving, cookies and puddings for Christmas, sticky dates to end the Ramadan fast, King Cake for Mardi Gras, chocolate eggs and yeasted sweet breads for Easter. Even our personal holidays, like birthdays and weddings, come with cake. For thousands of years, sharing sweetness has offered us communion, an intimacy. It has offered us a way to make a day holy.
In the modern era, the state has added new holidays for us to observe. Honoring the dead is their unrelenting theme, but not just any dead will do. Natural disasters don’t cut it. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 killed 3,000 people (about the same number as 9/11) and reduced a great American city to smoking rubble, but it didn’t get a holiday. Hurricane Katrina didn’t get a day, nor did even deadlier storms in the early part of the 20th century. What does the volatility of nature have to tell us that we want to remember?
War has become our moveable feast, ever adaptable, always telling us who we are. We have Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the most recent Patriot Day. (Remember that one? The bill turning 9/11 into Patriot Day passed the Senate unanimously on November 30, 2001). Government can give us days to observe, but it can’t make them holy.
That’s not to say that to celebrate life, we have to push the dead aside. Everything that lives must die, and there are ways to honor that, and those we have lost, that don’t make us lose our essential grip on life. Some cultures take care of their dead with holidays that look like Thanksgiving, abundant and generous. Across Asia, Buddhists feed their “hungry ghosts.” In Mexico, during the Day of the Dead, people take their ancestors and loved ones a party with their favorite foods, candies, mescal and tequila. They offer a bridge to the dead, to eat and laugh and remember. For a day, they share with them again the sweetness of life.
In official proclamations 9/11 might have been converted into a fight for freedom, but on the ground it was a mess. Loss was literally in the air. You could smell it everywhere you went in the city, the smoldering plastic and electrical wires turned into a great black plume of smoke and toxic dust. You could feel it burning at the back of your throat. It would be nearly Christmas before the fires at Ground Zero were finally put out. Our fellow New Yorkers were lost to their friends and family members, and we walked by walls of their faces in homemade “Have You Seen” posters stuck to every lamppost and construction fence. Firefighters and police officers had sacrificed themselves; the city mourned them both as lives lost and as symbols of our better selves. Homes were lost, at least temporarily. Small businesses that had been nurtured for years, and generations, were lost forever. A New Yorker’s most prized possession is her or his participation in the myth of New York. We all had to amend our sense of infinite possibility to include the possibility of sudden disaster.
Before the Halloween hand wringing went too far, the opposition backed down. City officials let the yearly parade in Greenwich Village go forward. The idea that it might actually be just what we needed was floated here and there. Life is what we living gravitate to without being told.
My husband and I went to a party in the East Village at the apartment of friends. Some people got in costume. Some weren’t ready for that yet. We went with some classic carnival masks on sticks — more of a festive gesture than a transformation. The host was one of my colleagues at the humanitarian NGO I worked for. Her husband worked at the UN. Many of the people who came out for the party were engaged with war and its effects on every single day of their working lives. Some had lived through actual war zones in other parts of the world where the violence and destruction went on for far longer than a day. Being part of that world was a real comfort to me then, both for the feeling of having something useful to do each day and for the recognition by all around me of how unexceptional war is. War is always happening somewhere, and it never feels better than we were feeling. We knew that, usually, it was much worse.
But it was a holiday, and we were all still alive. So we packed together into a New York-sized apartment to dance, to drink and to eat candy. Packets and packets of candy were opened like little time capsules of Halloweens past. Growing up, there were favorites that I never shared, like peanut butter cups, Kit Kats and Twix. There were the ones I gave away because I didn’t like them, like Peppermint Patties, Milky Ways and Hershey’s Kisses. And then there were the ones that I saved for bartering — M&M’s, Snickers and Tootsie Pops — because, while I thought they were good, they were also high value in a trade. Even children need a plan for what they will keep, and what they can part with.
By the time we left the party, we were feeling good, buzzed on wine and candy. Holding hands, we walked back across town to catch a Westside subway and make our way home. The wind had changed while we were inside. It had turned north again, blowing the acrid smell of the Ground Zero fires up the Avenues. When that smell was thick, it carried with it everything that had been burned up, and what was still floating away in the ashes.
At the parade, giant skeleton puppets had danced for the crowds. Kids up past their bedtime went store to store dressed as firemen and policemen, princesses and cartoon superheroes, their trick-or-treat bags bulging with candy. Some kept up the pace, their minds focused by the thrill of acquisition. Some stopped on the sidewalks to sample their goods, not being able to resist the weight of milk chocolate and caramel creams. We polished off our last peanut butter cups as we walked along the top of Washington Square Park. Death was on the wind, but the streets had been reclaimed for living.
Alisha Lumea is a writer, pastry chef, and consultant for food and beverage products, projects, and films. Chocolate and seafood are her specialties, although not together.
Photo by Luke Jones CC BY