I don’t get any trick-or-treaters anymore. The kids on this road are either all grown up and gone, or they attend the bonfire and party down on Main Street that is hosted by the school and the local volunteer fire department. It’s a safe, family-friendly venue (no chance of a crazy slipping a razor blade or drugs into a popcorn ball or taffy apple), and I’m sure the children enjoy it. Still, I can’t help feeling that they’re missing out on something important, something that harkens back to the primal feel of those nights when I was a kid in the 50s and we swished through knee-high drifts of leaves, suspended in a state somewhere between ferocious delight (all that candy!) and never-vocalized fear of what was in the darkness between the porch lights.
I grew up in Rhode Island, and I’m sure that at the end of October there must have been a rainy Halloween or two, but in my memory, it is all crisp leaves, frost, and hundreds of kids in costume going door to door. The costumes were important, of course. There were store-bought ones, but many were homemade. It was perfectly acceptable to cut two eyeholes in an old sheet and go as a ghost, or to wear your dad’s oldest hat and some baggy clothes, smear some coal ash on your face, tie a bundle to a stick, and be a hobo.
My mother sewed many of our clothes, and she outdid herself when it came to costumes. I dimly remember my father taking me around the neighborhood when I was five, the year I was a pumpkin. I have no sense of how I looked, but she must have made the costume out of either vinyl or a piece of orange oilcloth because I remember that it stank. Later costumes were much more successful. Once, I was a nurse with a little white dress, blue cape, and my Aunt Margee’s real nurse’s cap. Another year I was the Queen of Hearts, complete with a Disney-type ball gown embellished with red felt hearts, a tiara, a pair of evening gloves, and some sort of scepter. My favorite of mom’s creations was the Pilgrim Lady, a costume consisting of a long black dress with some sort of starched white collar, a black bonnet, a cape, and a basket of Indian corn. (I’m pretty sure the basket went missing sometime that night in favor of a second shopping bag full of candy. Even a Pilgrim Lady may succumb to the temptation of chocolate.) And do you know, the oddest thing was that none of the neighbors ever guessed who I really was, despite the dead giveaway of my glasses worn over or under my mask? Adults sure were dumb in those days.
But, boy, they knew how to give out candy! Any kind of chocolate was the ultimate prize–Milky Way bars were my favorite, followed by Three Musketeers, Mounds, and Sky Bars. I liked caramels and Sugar Daddys, too, along with the thick Tootsie rolls that did such a fine job of pulling out wobbly baby teeth. Fireballs, jelly spearmint leaves, Squirrel Nut bars, Mary Janes, and Bit o’ Honey were all welcome. There were duds in the candy department, though, chief among them being candy corn, which I would nibble only if nothing better were left at the bottom of my collecting bag the week after Halloween, and those horrible orange-colored fluff ‘peanuts’ that didn’t taste like a peanut or much of anything else, for that matter. I’m pretty sure they were made of sponge rubber.
My mother always gave out apple men, a confection consisting of an apple with marshmallows for the head and arms (attached with toothpicks), a large gumdrop on the head for a stocking cap, smaller gumdrops for mittens, and whole cloves for eyes, mouth, and buttons. I don’t know where she got the idea, perhaps in Good Housekeeping, but they became her signature treat. If you came home with an apple man in your bag, your folks knew you’d been to the Gillulys. I helped her to make 300 of them the year I was in seventh grade, and we still ran out.
But in those days, Halloween was for little kids. By the time you were in sixth grade, you were too old to go trick-or-treating except as the escort for younger siblings. I remember feeling miserably grown-up as I waited out on the sidewalk while my brothers went up on porches to fill their brown paper bags with loot. At the same time, I was shyly proud to be out there in the dark with the moms and dads and other big kids, shuffling our feet in the leaves to try to stay warm and chuckling quietly about how cute little so-and-so was in their pirate outfit. It was a bittersweet rite of passage for a twelve-year-old.
I know times have changed, and I don’t mean to offend if dressing up on Halloween is your favorite thing to do, but I wonder whether we haven’t lost something valuable by allowing/encouraging Halloween to become a party day for adults in high schools, colleges, and workplaces. Is there anything left for the little kids to have as their own? And how do you know when you’ve left childhood behind if you never get any signals that “this is no longer for you”?
Just a thought in this season when the doors between the worlds stand open.