Is it just me or has Halloween crept up on us with all the speed of a runaway ghost train this year? Pumpkins flying off the shelves, together with endless bags of miniature Mars Bars and tiny packets of Maltesers. Hot on its heels, Bonfire Night blazes in with fireworks and bobbing toffee-covered apples, and then in no time at all – the best celebration of them all – Christmas.
It always seems to happen in a blink, yet each year we uphold the traditions and embrace every festivity as it comes along with the uninhibited glee of a small child. We’re allowed to. And nobody judges us for the innocent pleasure we take in carving a wonky cartoon cat into the face of a pumpkin, or the giddy excitement we feel trawling every garden centre imaginable to find the biggest tree we can possibly squeeze into the house. We never lose the child in us at this time of year.
But what happens throughout the rest of the year? Do we just step out of the child we’ve inhabited for the last two months and back into our true identity as the responsible adult our chronological age tells us we should be? Or are we actually just grown-ups who have been pretending to be grown-up all along? More to the point, what does being grown up really mean?
At eighteen we are legally adults. We can drink, vote, have sex, marry and leave education (if we choose to) for the working world of a full-time job and start to fend for ourselves – ironically the things that most of us spent our early teenage years longing to do. We are on the brink of maturity.
Then there are a collection of conventional milestones that seem to make us feel very adult, or at least believe that we should be. Establishing a career path, financial freedom, buying our first home, marriage, parenthood. Finally we are making independent decisions and taking responsibility within what appear to be the defining traits of adulthood. And we do secretly rather enjoy it all at the time, as each life event makes us feel just that little bit more in control and – well - grown up. We’ve done the expected and therefore decide we should behave accordingly.
But – really – how many of us actually do? How many of us in all honesty want to? And what is that flip point when the inner child hurtles out demanding to be reinstated? It can’t just be about the annual celebrations we’ve carried with us since childhood. I can ask myself – am I really grown up? And the answer is – no. I’m not sure that many of us ever truly have been.
I think that, partly, this is down to the fact that when we’re through the childhood and teen years, we also leave behind the safe figures of authority. Suddenly we are our own authority – we’re out there and it’s daunting. It’s not easy to let go of the childlike security in having someone else make decisions for us. Inevitably, we do go ahead and make them on our own and, mostly, we make them well. We learn by experience and perhaps it’s the accumulation of experience that allows us to become just a little more grown up each time. But the serious weight of it all never quite leaves us. Small wonder we need to let off a little juvenile steam once in a while.
Of course, we can measure being grown up by the changes in our bodies. Physically, there’s no denying it, we are grown up. How many of us feel a nostalgic pang for our youth when we go to school reunions or landmark birthday parties with people we haven’t seen for years? We might look older but after polite nods and handshakes and talking all things seriously adult, suddenly we are back in time, three sheets to the wind and cutting some serious moves on the dance floor we thought we’d left behind in our twenties. Not very grown up. But – nor should it be. Sometimes we simply need to be as irresponsible as we can, when we can, just to lighten the load. And if that means throwing ourselves around a dance floor or reduced to childlike hysteria over utter trivia, then let’s do it.
There’s a lovely C.S. Lewis quote: “Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grown-ups have another kind.”
As far as I’m concerned, I never want to lose my silliness. I’m not grown up and I don’t want to be. If we let go of the child in us under the weight of adult responsibility, it all becomes just a little too serious for my liking. Being grown up is hard. I don’t always know what I’m doing and I don’t always get it right, but that doesn’t matter if every now and again I can act like a five, ten, fifteen, twenty year old. It makes me happy.
And if anyone wants me between now and Thursday, I can be found in the local party shop trying on my Halloween costume with my middle daughter, who happens to share her birthday with this not so childish – it turns out – autumn celebration!