This is the time of year that every red-blooded kid looks forward to. They dress up in dad’s suit or an old sheet, grab a bucket, and come home with tons of sweets to rot their teeth. It’s awesome. Or so it used to be.
Not everyone wants to participate in Halloween doings or allow their kids to participate. It is, after all, a bit of a pagan holiday. Beginning with the Celtics, who built fires and dressed up in ghoulish outfits on Samhain (sow-in) to confuse the spirits of the dead, we Americans have transformed All Hallows Eve into a secular holiday for handing out sweets to appease the little ones dressed as ghouls, witches, and (these days) princesses and cartoon characters. Some even dress up as presidential candidates. But the holiday’s pagan origins and religious beliefs that it encourages demonic association are definitely at odds. Not everyone celebrates. Some avoid.
But back in the good old days, as my Bean calls her youth, not even the most religious among them objected to a bit of Halloween fun. Every child would be out as soon as it was dark, dressed up in some homemade costume and hoping that this was their year they could go out without a parent to supervise. This was allowed as long as they agreed to stay in a group. Exercising this privilege of going out unsupervised on one cold and damp Wisconsin Halloween night, and after fully exhausting the candy possibilities from their 2.5 street neighborhood, with bags and buckets already filled with homemade caramel apples, cookies, and other wonderful treats, the older ones’ minds turned to additional possibilities. The main street into their very suburban (country) neighborhood, off of which the other two streets ran perpendicular, had homes on only one side of the gravel road. Except for one.
During the summers, the older ones often played back in the woods. They had seen the old run-down house and knew someone lived there: someone without children, someone old. Now on this dark cold night with no parents along, they contemplated whether to approach the home. Did a witch live there? Was it someone who ate young children? There was some discussion about porch lights being off or on (the signal that they were welcome) and the overgrown unpaved narrow drive through the woods to actually reach the house was very dark. There were five of them, two of them boys. They had flashlights which they chose not to use, but they agreed to stick together.
They made their way down the drive carefully, trying not to trip on their costumes or each other, in silence. It was either a sneak attack or they were too frightened to make noise. Finally, they reached the front door. At the door, a whispered argument took place regarding who would actually ring. And then the deed was done. They waited. Just as they were about to give up and turn away, an old man opened the door, his cat beside him, and the automatic chorus sang out: Trick or Treat!!
To say he was stunned was probably an understatement. Bean says she now believes that nobody had ever gone to his home on Halloween. He looked them over, these brave few at his door, and told them that he had no candy … but he instructed them to wait. They waited. It took forever. At last he returned, and into each of their outstretched bags and buckets he deposited a nickel. A whole nickel. Back then, 5 cents was a huge sum of money, enough for a full-sized candy bar of their choosing.
Each little goblin thanked the man, and they ran off, back toward the lights and warmth of homes where parents waited for their return. Bean recalls telling her mother about where she got the nickel, which was met with a frown of disapproval, head shaking, and “You went there?”
These days, parents take their children to purchase expensive costumes from store fronts set up to deprive parents of their paychecks, and then on the now legislated night at designated hours, drive them into the more affluent neighborhoods, starting in the late afternoon while it’s still daylight. As twilight comes, cars with headlights dimmed to low (but still on to light the way) and parents line the streets, someone accompanying every group of children. Doors open, candy – carefully wrapped – is tossed into outstretched bags, and the door closes again, sometimes without a please or a thank you or admiration of the costume it cost mom or dad a fortune to buy. Everyone grumbles about the price of candy, tooth decay, and kids who don’t even live on the block. Parents admonish their offspring, “Don’t you dare eat a thing until I say so” and, as soon as the candy collection is finished, drive them straight to the nearest hospital or clinic to have the sweets x-rayed for pins and razor blades. Anything with suspicious wrapping or potentially homemade is tossed out. Beware the poisoned apple.
The holiday has changed. It’s simply become a costly routine that everyone detests, except the kids and probably the dentist. When you have to x-ray the candy and have parents with every group, no matter how old, the fun is gone. People hold community parties, trick or treat at the mall, and bob for apples in the church basement. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Many will do almost anything to keep their kids safely at home on Halloween. Your neighborhood kids are probably all off attending those parties or at home eating the candy from their trip to the mall, while the ones at your front door are imports from the next neighborhood over. The magic of Halloween is gone.
Ah, to sneak down a wooded drive with friends and ring the bell on a cold, dark night.