Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Trick or Treat

Halloween had its beginnings in the Pagan and Christian traditions of offering sacrifices on this night to appease the spirits of the dead who rise out of their graves and wander the countryside, trying to return to the homes where they formerly lived. Frightened villagers began the tradition of placing plates of the finest food and bits of treats that the household had to offer on their doorsteps, as gifts, to appease the hunger of the ghostly wanderers. If not placated, villagers feared that the spirits would kill their flocks or destroy their property. The superstitious people protected themselves on such an occasion by blackening the face with soot and masquerading as devils, imps, ogres, and other demonic creatures, hopefully to blend in unnoticed among them. This is the origin of the Halloween traditions of trick or treat and masquerading.

Halloween as a modern-day holiday has become big business. Sales of Halloween decorations for the home now rival Christmas. Elaborate lawn displays, fancy costumes, even a parade in the West Village of New York City filled with outrageously costumed revelers now mark this once minor holiday as a major event. It was not so back in the 1950s. It was a day pretty much for kids. Our costumes were homemade and simple. Dressing up in your parents old clothes with stuffing to fill them out, and decorating your face with burnt cork sufficed for most kids. We certainly couldn't afford the eggs and shaving cream adopted by later generations to wreak havoc, we mostly used socks filled with flour to pound each other, or big sticks of chalk to deface sidewalks and unsuspecting people.

We did go trick or treating, although the pickings were a lot leaner back then. Today, a month before Halloween, the stores stock up with specially sized candy meant for disbursing to kids who ring your bell. We had no such luck. Instead of finding us cute, like the little Princess Leias and Spidermans who come to our doors today, our neighbors considered us pains in the ass. If they answered the door at all, you got whatever was laying around the house....an apple already going brown, a few Graham crackers left over from the Truman Administration, or a prized Hershey Bar, the chocolate turning white with age. I remember once calling on Mrs. Mancini, here only a couple of years from Italy. She seemed puzzled when I explained the idea of trick or treat in my best broken Italian and, feeling bad that she had nothing in the house, untied a handkerchief and gave me four quarters. Clearly my best Halloween score ever!

If some neighborhood crab didn't come across, we'd pull a lame-o trick just to punish the cheapskate. It was like the loan sharks in the neighborhood who had to "kneecap" someone once in a while just to keep the deadbeats in line. We'd jam a stick in their doorbell, chalk-up their sidewalks, or overturn their garbage pails and then run like hell. (The really great tricks like leaving a flaming bag full of doggie-do on the front step and ringing the doorbell had yet to be invented.) You had to be careful not to get caught since these were the days when adults felt free to plant a kick in your rear if you misbehaved. You dared not tell your parents because that only meant another beating.

We had Halloween parties too. We'd play games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Simon Says and Musical Chairs. When we got older and the hormones starting bubbling over, a clandestine game of Spin the Bottle could always be found in a dark corner. Probably the greatest Halloween game we played was ducking for apples. The hostess would fill a big metal tub with water (probably used for bathing at other times, ugh). Then apples, into which coins of varying denominations would be inserted, were floated in the tub. Kids would take turns trying to bob for the apples using only their teeth, a very wet and messy business. If you were lucky you might get an apple containing as much as fifty cents. I love the quote from author Dorothy Parker when she first heard the term: Ducking for apples. She said: "There, but for a typographical error, is the story of my life."

Kids show up today for trick or treating in store-bought costumes escorted by a posse of parents, accept only sealed candy which their parents have inspected by the FDA before the kid gets to eat a piece, and wouldn't have a clue if, when they said "Trick or Treat" you said "trick". The idea of ducking for apples in that germ-filled petri dish would horrify modern mothers who walk around with a bottle of hand sanitizer in case little Madison should touch anything. There is also the issue of creeps doing things like putting razor blades in candy or luring kids into their homes. Very scary...I guess that accounts for the parent posses.

I liked Halloween as a kid...it was our simple holiday and we had our fun. Adults have managed to screw it up.

Originally posted 10/7/08.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

The problem is the adults that managed to screw it up are us!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Point taken. In the quest to give our kids everything we didn't have, we also managed to take away some of the things we did have.