Looking out my window one morning recently, watching the falling leaves fluttering by and waving goodbye to summer, my thoughts turned to Halloween.
Surely most of us have warm memories of Halloween from our childhood. It was the one night when you could be whatever you wanted to be, and be given candy and treats just for asking. I used to ring doorbells and yell “Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat!”
The phrase “trick or treat” used to be an implied threat: give me candy or I’ll play a trick on you. As young children, we didn’t mean it literally. But eventually, as adolescents, we outgrew trick-or-treating and used Halloween to pull off pranks and light forms of vandalism.
I used to go down Bailey Avenue in Buffalo the day after tricks-or-treats night and see all the store windows waxed and soaped up. I never used wax myself, but I did use soap. There were quite a few raw eggs thrown around, too. In residential areas, homes and trees would get TP’d. This would turn into a real mess when it rained.
Sixty years ago, children dressed like horror legends such as Frankenstein or the Mummy, policemen, soldiers, firemen and sports figures. I had three basic costumes back then.
One was hobo. I’d grab an old, well-worn shirt out of the “rag bag” and maybe shred it a bit more, pair this with a worn pair of dungarees (this is what we called jeans back then) and take scissors to them, maybe sew a patch or two on the pants, and rub burnt cork on my face to simulate whiskers.
My second go-to costume was cowboy. I’d dig into my toy box and pull out my best toy cap gun, holster and a cowboy hat.
Ghost was another. This was the best one because nobody could see your face. I’d get an old sheet from my mother, cut two eye holes in it and voila! Instant costume. None of those store-bought outfits with the plastic masks for me, thanks.
In the 1950s and 1960s, trick-or-treaters took whatever treat they were given. Every neighborhood had a house where a kindly old lady allowed us to pick our treat from a plate full of homemade candies, cakes or cookies. Back then, families would permit their children to go out trick-or-treating with their older brothers, sisters or even the neighbor’s children.
My loot bag was an old pillow case and if I didn’t fill it at least twice, it was a bad night. I donned my costume right after dinner and headed out to pillage the neighborhood in ever increasing circles. Once my bag was filled, I returned home to dump the contents on a newspaper in the dining room, then headed out for another round.
While I was out, my parents would sort my treasure, separating out the fruit and anything homemade or repackaged. I was only allowed to keep individually wrapped, mass-produced candies, and I wasn’t allowed to eat anything until my parents had examined my loot. For some reason, peanut butter cups fell into the “suspicious” category and they were always gone when I returned, never to be seen again.
I read that this was because of paranoia about contaminated treats and was the result of unsubstantiated urban legends involving razor blades in apples or poisoned treats. Wikipedia says that no child has ever been killed by eating Halloween candy from a stranger. Snopes collected an impressive array of rumors about adulterated Halloween treats and found them all to be untrue.
One year I had a Halloween party in my parents’ basement. I produced “touch boxes” where my guests would reach through a hole and feel things while I told a horror story. The few things I remember are a bowl of raw chicken livers, a natural sponge covered with Karo syrup (to simulate a brain covered in blood) and peeled grapes to imitate eyeballs. My guests and I also bobbed for apples and played a few other Halloween-themed games.
I hosted this party when I lived in Buffalo and had to discontinue it once we moved to the country. As people moved to the suburbs, they found that their new neighborhoods weren’t very favorable for trick-or-treating. Sometimes the lack of sidewalks forced children to walk on the street. Many suburban neighborhoods boasted large lots and this caused the kids to walk long distances going from house to house. In rural areas, where the trek between houses is even longer, parents would sometimes pack up their children and head to more urban neighborhoods, where the homeowners might quickly run out of candy.
Nowadays, children aren’t very familiar with their neighborhoods. Combine that with the dangers of traffic and it is best that parents accompany trick-or-treaters. A fairly recent trend is “trunk or treat” gatherings, in which people hand out candy from their Halloween-decorated cars in parking lots.
Halloween sure has changed since I was a kid.