Costumes. I love 'em. Full-skirted antique dresses with trains, grass skirts and paper leis; my husband and I dressed as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee or Dracula and his Lady. A neighbor child told me he didn't celebrate Halloween because it was about evil spirits and ghosts. Well, there is that. But once a year, anyone who is of a mind to, can dress up in anything ghoulish or jailish or historical or hysterical and fit right in.
When I asked family members about Halloween, I heard stories from five generations. I'm writing the stories of my family to share with you in hopes you'll be inspired to write your family Halloween stories too. It's a perfect day for it. As I look out the window, the big maple tree in the front yard has turned completely yellow. The leaves are bobbing and jiggling in the wind. Thin, gray light seeps through the overcast sky. A chill swirls around my bare toes, even in the house. It's all halloweeny.
"We didn't trick or treat," said Aunt Helen about Halloween in the 1920s. "We just tricked." No costumes, no candy in Nevada. Dad said the same for Idaho. But Dad did remember his two older brothers getting in trouble for tipping over an outhouse. Both remembered the time in Panaca, when some boys took a wagon apart on Halloween night, dragged it piece by piece up onto the top of the court rock--a clay hill in the middle of town--and put it back together again. Eventually, of course, they had to take it apart again to get it back down.
Georgia Deane told of the Halloween when her brother Albert was in the outhouse when it was pushed over. It caved in, and Albert's distressed voice could be heard crying, "Get me out. Get me out of here." Nobody wanted to get caught in an overturned outhouse, but there were no bathrooms. An outhouse was a hole in the ground covered with a wooden seat with a hole cut in it surrounded by four walls, one holding a door. When the little building was pushed over, all that was left was the hole and its contents. Not good. But a terrific prank for Halloween.
One Halloween, my Grandpa Lafe had his sheep wagon parked in the street. A bunch of boys, his nephews and others, pushed the wagon three blocks, all the time chuckling at how Uncle Lafe would react when he couldn't find his wagon. Just as the boys parked the wagon under a tree and began to tip toe off, the door of the wagon creeped open. The boys watched with wide eyes as Grandpa stepped out of the wagon and said, "All right boys, you've pushed it down here, now you can push it back."
By the time our generation came along, there was plenty of treating and very little tricking. I remember soaping someone's car windows once. And one Halloween when I was just two years old, some boys came around wearing scary masks. I started to scream in terror. So Mom asked the boys to take their masks off saying, "They're just boys." But her good intentions backfired. I was afraid of boys for many years.
One cousin, who did heavy trick or treating in the new town of Boulder City, Nevada in the 1950s said it was "fun, fun, fun," not like now. She said she used Halloween as an excuse to dress as a princess at least once every year. In our family, we didn't buy costumes and we didn't have candy in little packages. My Sis and I recalled the costumes we created: hobos, gypsies, cowboys, scarecrows, witches. The only masks available covered only the eyes. But the treats were terrific: caramel apples, fudge, cookies, popcorn balls, divinity, all home-made. Sis remembers her first purchased costume, a flimsy Minnie Mouse dress with white polka dots on a red background.
A sister-in-law who trick or treated in Lynwood, Los Angeles County said, "We had so much fun -- dressing up, going out and seeing the delight on the faces of the people handing out treats. It was an exciting time to look forward to. And if we couldn't come up with a costume, there was always the good ol' sheet to use for a ghost costume. After we collected our goodies we came back home, sat on the floor with our bags, and ate our favorites first."
My husband remembered "beggars day" which was the day before Halloween. The kids in L.A. got two trick or treat days? Hey, wait a minute. I want mine too. Everyone of our generation said two things about Halloween: "It was so much fun, and it was so safe." It didn't enter any of our heads to worry about safety. But I remember clearly the first time we received the news that some trick-or-treaters had been poisoned with homemade candy. I was a young mother then, and Halloween changed forever.
We celebrated Halloween early this year with some of our grandchildren, by grabbing our sacks and filling them up at various stations around the Magic Kingdom at Disney's not-so-scary Halloween party. Other little grandkids will be out and about this Halloween, dressed as Winnie the Pooh, Spider Man, Robin Hood, a duck, a pumpkin, a bumblebee, and a ring-wraith--just for starters. They will go to the shops at the mall and be carted to the homes of friends. They'll go to the Harvest Festival at school; maybe they'll even get to trunk-or-treat at their local church parking lots. They'll come home loaded with orange bags or plastic pumpkins full of commercially made treats wrapped safely in paper. They'll have a blast and get sick to the stomach and hardly be able to wait for next year. But changes are already in the air. In Des Moines, the kids have to do a trick such as telling a joke, singing a song or doing cartwheels on the front lawn before they get their treats. In some places in Ohio, it's called Beggars' Night, not Halloween. It's one of the reasons we write our traditions down; like us, they grow and change.
A hallowed element has been added to our family's Halloween, for it is also the anniversary of the death of our dear mother and grandmother, who liked to dress up too.
Those interviewed for this article: Walter Kerr; Heather Chasse; Lory Free; Mary Ann Smith; Simone Hentish; Margo Gunnarsson; Helen O'Connor; Linda Lee.