Halloween: Then and Now

Today is Halloween. I have been pondering the way Halloween is celebrated now and the way it was celebrated in the last century. Somewhere, I read that Americans spend more on Halloween than any other holiday. I’m not sure that is true, but from of the elaborate displays on some of our neighbors’ lawns, I tend to believe it. Most decorations are benign with pumpkins, blow up Peanut’s gang and other seasonal characters. Then there are the grisly, horrific, animated, larger than life monsters with sepulchral voices that are triggered as Ted and I take our daily walk. He walks faster, looking over his shoulder and I roll my eyes. But then we are surrounded by sunlight. If it were dark or even twilight, we may take another route.

In our local mall there is a huge Halloween store that springs up every September. There are even homes in the posher neighborhoods that have huge, animated displays with booming speakers, and flashing lights. People in their cars drive slowly by to witness the macabre display. 

A local church does “trunk or treat.” Last Saturday, their parking lot and the parking lot of an adjacent church were crammed. Live music, bouncy houses, food, and of course candy in the trunks of cars were available. A frenetic alternative to traditional Halloween and more on the lines of Harvest Festivals.

Through the golden haze of fall memories, I think back on Halloween as a child. Among the family legends is the story of me being dressed up like a frog around the age of three and being the hit of the trick or treating circuit. Part of this story is, that I was so cute, I often garnered more than one treat. It doesn’t matter because I don’t remember any of this. But I do know that my five older siblings probably snaked the best stuff. It wasn’t easy being number six with a seven-year gap between me and my voracious sisters and brother.

My favorite Halloween memories though are when I was around eight until I reluctantly let go of dressing up and going trick or treating. During that time my friends and I went as a pack with a brave parent hanging in the background until we were old enough to lose the chaperone. Costumes that were cobbled together from items found in the dark recesses of closets were much better than the scratchy, cheesy ones that came from the store.

One year, I was gorgeous as a lumpy version of the blue fairy from Pinocchio complete with wand and my older sister’s tiara. The fairy’s silky gown was an old negligee of my mother’s that we dyed sky blue together. I managed to get a fair amount of the dye on my hands which gave them a strange diseased look. However, I would have been amazing if I didn’t have to wear a turtleneck and jeans underneath the gorgeous azure confection. And what fairy wears school shoes? No amount of wrangling got me my mom’s silver high heels. My blue hands did distract the candy donors but by jiggling my pillowcase persuasively they were recalled to the business at hand. 

Usually, the pack would gather at dusk, optimistically, armed with pillowcases. No low volume, plastic, pumpkin buckets for us. As darkness took over and the night got colder, we roamed the streets of the neighborhoods, often walking a ½ mile or more for a silver dollar or a big candy bar—the ones that cost ten cents. 

I think we all knew when we were twelve that would be the final year for the trick or treating pack. The candy givers were beginning to make comments on our size and age. That year we went all out on the costumes. I remember borrowing my sister’s make up which we applied liberally. I was a gypsy with painful clip-on gold hoop earrings, my friend Nancy was a black cat and Barbara was very glamorous. I’m not sure what she was supposed to be.  

But one costume required no grease paint. That was our friend Martha as Captain Hook. So splendid was her evolving outfit that it became a group project. Even parents became involved. It all started with an ancient red, moth-eaten doorman’s coat that was liberally embellished with gold braid. Black capri pants, knee high socks and shoes adorned with large buckles were found. A hat with a long curving feather was perched on Martha’s long black hair. Things were shaping up. A glue on mustache was bought at the dime store. But there was one thing missing. It took several days to convince my mother to loan Martha her electric mixer’s dough hook. Voila! The costume was complete and a glory to behold, garnering the pack lots of extra treats and a glowing memory.

Holiday costume parties have been around for many years. Trick or treating still happens and now we have harvest festivals. I think what we are really celebrating is dressing up as a fantasy character or a menacing creature and laying down our well-known usual personas.  And then there is the shivery pleasure of scaring and being scared.  All that’s needed are candy, parties, a bit of mystery and a cloudy night sky with the owl you hear every night hooting at a gibbous moon.

Happy Halloween! 

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