Monday, November 5, 2012

Halloween Then and Now

Halloween is over for another year, and I’m glad. I must confess it’s no longer my favorite holiday, even though my book Ghost Writer features a ghost. But as a kid, I loved it.

At the time I grew up, the celebration was much different than today. For one thing, our parents made our costumes because no store-bought ones were available. And I think many of them were better. They were certainly more creative.

I was twenty-six months old when my grandfather died four days before Halloween. No one had thought about a costume, so I was wrapped in a sheet to visit a couple of the neighbors.

The next year, my mother outdid herself with one of the cutest costumes ever: Little Bo Peep. Mom (who didn’t sew) made a pink and blue confection of a skirt. I wore my own blouse, and my mother trimmed one of my bonnets to match the skirt. She wrapped one of my great-grandfather’s canes in pink and blue crepe paper and added a big bow. I carried my stuffed lamb and thought I was the image of the character in one of my favorite nursery rhymes.

This costume was eventually worn by several of my cousins and always elicited positive comments.

In following years, I was a princess (my favorite), a graduate, and several other cute and equally creative characters.

I was raised in a neighborhood that was more like an extended family. Nearly every house contained kids our age. Most had more than one. We lived in a post-World War II housing tract, and the whole place was safe. We could go from block to block, and the families knew each other.

Trick-or-treating was great. No parental supervision was required. We went out in large groups.

This was the era of popcorn balls and homemade candy apples. Some families gave purchased candy, but our treats were most often packaged by the family.

Our favorite house was a couple of blocks away. All year, the parents put their pennies in a large fishbowl they kept inside their front door. (Pennies were used much more frequently at that time, and they were worth a lot more.)

On Halloween, they’d allow each child to keep as many pennies as they could hold in one hand. You put the other hand behind your back, then opened your fingers wide and clutched as many as you could grasp.

The tricky part was the transfer to your Halloween bag, often a pillowcase.

The kids with larger hands could hold onto more. Long discussions of strategy preceded each holiday outing. Some argued for turning your hand up before removing it from the bowl to balance as many pennies as possible. This strategy was not always successful, however as if you caught the rim of the bowl, you were likely to lose your treasure. Others believed in the tight grip method. Still others claimed a looser grasp would capture more loot.

Whatever our individual outcome, we all felt richer at the end of the evening. Of course, this might not be as appealing today. Pennies aren’t worth as much, and most of us don’t want to be bothered with them. Some merchants don’t even accept them.

Trick-or-treat was only one of the Halloween celebrations, though.

The elementary school held a carnival, usually the Saturday before Halloween. Everyone, including many of the adults, came in costume. Prizes were given for the best ones.

Each group at the school (PTA, Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.) sponsored a game or other activity. Some required skill. Others, blind luck.

Our Girl Scout troop always had the game where you rolled baseballs up an incline, trying to get them into holes drilled in a large piece of plywood. The number that went into the holes determined your prize.

Then there was the fishing booth. You were given a pole with a clothes pin on the end. The line was thrown over a curtain (a painted sheet), and an adult on the other side attached a prize at random. (Sometimes, the person in back was told the age and/or gender of the kid so that we’d receive an appropriate prize. Of course, we were oblivious to this conspiracy.)

All the kids had to try to win a goldfish. They were kept in small bowls with even smaller openings. We threw Ping-Pong balls and tried to get one into a bowl. Most of us were successful and took our new pets home in plastic bags. Of course, the fish tended to die quickly, but a few survived their trip home to live for a long time thereafter. One of ours, Goldie, stayed on our coffee table for many years.

Everyone’s favorite booth was the dunk tank. Most often, the ‘victim’ was one of the older boys or even one who had moved on to high school. They loved coming back and enjoyed being dunked.

The mechanism was connected to a long pole. Baseballs were pitched at a padded target at the end. If they connected with enough force, the seat fell away, and the ‘victim’ ended up in a large vat of cold water.

Each year, we had a ‘mystery guest.’ This person was always in disguise. Part of the fun was trying to figure out who it was. Sometimes it was a popular dad, others a teacher. I remember best the year that the principal was on the ‘hot seat.’ One of the high school kids finally dunked him.

All the proceeds from this event went either to the individual groups or the PTA.

Most of us went home with some sweet treat we’d bought at the bake sale.

Life was simpler, and I truly think we had more fun.

This year we only had eight kids at our door. And only one of them was from our neighborhood. How sad for all of us, and how much we've lost.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your memories here with all of us. I grew up in the city, in the fifties and early sixties, and as you said, we roamed the neighborhood, going street to street and then crossing the boulevard with the police officer's help and roaming free in "the project" where one building might hold six apartments, and we knew kids in almost every building. We too filled pillowcases with candy, but most often made our own and each other's costumes. Being a hobo was easy, as we all had coal cellars and dad's fedora hats. I'm pretty sure our Halloween candy last 'til Christmas, and then Christmas candy lasted 'til Easter, and... well, you get it.
    Happy Thanksgiving!