The Halloween of my childhood began with the sound of rain. Soft at first, then steady, it tapped on my windowsill at night, a Morse code translating to one word: fall. In the morning, it was there in the smell of the wet sidewalks, the adventurous worms strewn across the cracks, and the damp leaves pressed into the concrete by the shoes of kids traipsing to school.
Some people might say that California doesn’t have seasons, but in my childhood, it did. And in California, no season was more vivid than fall. Fall was there in the maple leaves fading into a brilliant red on the front yards of every house on the block. Fall was there when the ginkgo tree, affectionately nicknamed the “butterfly tree,” transformed into a sunshine yellow cloud and let loose its leaves on the sidewalk between home and school. Fall was there in the rains, which only came in the cold months, when the wind began to turn and tug my hair into my face.
With fall came school, and with school came October, and with October came that holiday — Halloween. In my memory, the two are inseparable: Halloween and fall. Surely, then, the morning of Halloween had to be rainy, with the worms out and the sidewalk strewn with leaves.
Then came the first real moment of Halloween: emerging from my house in costume. The moment my shoe touched the sidewalk, the moment I left the shelter of home, I became someone else.
One year I was the Ocean: fish safety-pinned to a blue outfit, a baseball cap with a fishing hook dangling from my head.
Another year I was Miss Smarty Pants: the cylindrical sweet-and-sour candies secured to flared black pants.
Another year I was the Night Sky: a constellation of stars draped across a dark dress, a ‘Starry Night’ scarf, and midnight blue nail polish borrowed from a friend.
Yet, as the years went on, my costumes transitioned from the concrete to the abstract. Instead of becoming a character or an object, I just became a slightly different version of myself. I pieced together my costumes from clothing I rarely wore or clothing I liked but wasn’t bold enough to wear regularly: a heroine’s flowy white blouse, a leather vest, a bowler hat, a bright red scarf. When people asked me what I “was,” I made up an answer. An adventurer. An enchantress. A detective. It changed every time.
Halloween isn’t my favorite holiday, but this is what I love most about it: the thrill of transformation, of disguise, of being a different person for a day. Teachers become goofy. Kids become their idols, their favorite characters. There are no rules. You could be anybody, even if it’s just that version of you that wears a bright red scarf that your aunt knitted years ago.
My first year at Princeton, I listened for the coming of fall. And when it came sweeping through campus, I recognized it like a reflection of fall back home. Fall came with the rain, pouring for days at a time without pause. Fall came with the sudden cold snaps, a scarf wrapped around my neck and a beanie pulled over my ears. Fall came with a sudden preponderance of tourists up campus, photoshoots everywhere, dogs in leaf piles, and leaves clutched like precious things in the hands of toddlers. Fall came, and with it I eagerly anticipated Princeton’s Halloween.
Yet, Princeton’s Halloween began with rows of students diligently taking notes and the professor dressed business casual with a pointer and a set of slides. It brought no goofy professors dressed up, no kids traipsing to class in crazy outfits, no mystery, and no late-night trick-or-treating.
It took a while for me to process the new reality of Halloween. At first, I dearly missed the Halloween of my childhood — the thrill of joining the costume parade on the trek to school, the intrigue of seeing my classmates turn out in different colors, the adventure of trick-or-treating past my bedtime. I realized that a chapter of my life had closed. I could never go back to those innocent days of walking the sidewalk, tiptoeing around worms, watching the rain and floating through a shower of sunshine leaves. I had had the last Halloween of my childhood, and I hadn’t even known it.
Yet, at the same time, I began to see that Princeton’s Halloween is more than meets the eye. In fact, it is itself disguised. For some, it is hidden in the nightlife, in a room full of teenagers and 20-somethings jumping up and down while screaming the lyrics of Taylor Swift. For others, it might be a cozy night in with blankets and an animated movie projected on the wall. For others still, it is tucked into miniature pumpkins left at dormitory doorsteps, fake spiderwebs draped in dining halls, and special holiday desserts. Princeton’s Halloween is no better and no worse than the Halloween of my childhood; it is simply a different version of the holiday.
And during the day, it’s still there. It’s there in the constant drift of leaves on the way to class. It’s there in the rain in the streets. It’s there in the freshness of the morning air: Halloween and fall.
Amidst all this, I saw it: the sunshine yellow of a ginkgo tree in the full glory of fall on the stretch of lawn between Butler and Whitman, half of its leaves freed by the wind and half of them clinging stubbornly to their home branch. Somehow, I’d never noticed it before.
Jessica Wang is a member of the Class of 2026 and a staff writer for the Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.