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Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, We Want Something Good to Eat

October 30, 2011
Me as a Panda, Halloween, 1958

Me: Halloween 1958

If the phrase above is familiar to you, you’re probably of an age where your bones creak when you get out of bed in the morning, and your eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be.  Then again, neither is Halloween.

Call me nostalgic or wistful or old fashioned, but I miss the days when Halloween was all about homemade costumes, taffy apples and popcorn balls and fudge, scary-faced pumpkins, and being allowed – for just one night – to go door-to-door in your neighbourhood after dark with your friends, asking for treats. 

Son #1 as Panda, Halloween 1985

Son #1: Halloween 1984 (same costume!)

What happened to the innocent adventure that used to be Halloween?  When did it become a month-long commercialized ‘event’ featuring giant blow-up lawn decorations, light -up pumpkins, kazillions of boxed miniature candy bars and potato chips, and the fear of poisoned (or otherwise sabotaged) treats?

(And as much as I’d like to steer clear of the ‘political-correctness’ side of this special day, I’m more than a tad outraged by the fact that many schools have banned costume-wearing in favour of ‘orange and black’ days because [as outlined in a memo from my own area school board]: “some newcomer students share no background [or] cultural knowledge of ‘trick or treating’, [or] the commercialization of death, sexist demonization of different religious beliefs, etc. as ‘fun’.”  Honestly, I don’t think Halloween has ever been a ‘sexist demonization’ of anything [despite what some historians might suggest, there is no conclusive evidence that Halloween is in any way connected to ancient pagan rituals and human sacrifice; see below], and if ‘newcomers’ to our country don’t want to accept or participate in one of our longest standing cultural traditions, then they should keep their kids home that day!)

Sorry – getting off my soapbox now!

Turnip Lantern

Turnip Lantern

So, you might ask, where did the ‘cultural celebration’ we know as Halloween come from?  The word Halloween is a Scottish adaptation (first cited in the mid 1500s) of ‘All-Hallows-Even(ing)’ – the night before ‘All Hallows (Saints) Day’ (a Christian celebration held on November 1).  During medieval times, the poor would carve turnips into lanterns to light the way as they went from door to door (often dressed in costume), asking for food in return for saying prayers for souls trapped in purgatory (some say the candles that were lit in the turnips represented the lost souls).  The first record of children dressing up (‘guising’) on Halloween (October 31), and going from house to house asking for food (or coins), was in Scotland in 1895. 

Pumpkins and Yard Decor, 1988In the mid-1800s, immigrants to North America began carving pumpkins (which were more readily available, larger, and easier to carve than turnips) as part of their fall harvest celebrations; it wasn’t until much later that they became associated with Halloween.  The first record of children on this side of the Atlantic going ‘guising’ was in Kingston (Ontario) in 1911.  The term ‘trick or treat’ – as applied to Halloween – appeared in print in 1927 (in Blackie, Alberta) and referred to the threat of ‘tricking’ a homeowner (mostly farmers at that time and in that location) if they didn’t hand over a ‘treat’.  The term doesn’t appear to have been popularized in the rest of North America until the mid-1930s.

Me as mouse (gypsy sister, panda brother, rabbit nephew); 1961

Me as mouse; 1961

Likely because of the connection between Halloween and lost souls (which could lead to visions of spirits and ghosts and skeletons and witches and various ‘other worldy’ entities), the costumes chosen by young people to wear when ‘guising’ were originally of this ilk; they were primarily handmade (mass-produced costumes weren’t introduced until 1930).  However, the idea that ‘anything goes’ (when it comes to disguising yourself) soon caught on.

Son #1 (same mouse costume); 1986

Son #1; 1986

When I was young, my mother sewed our costumes (I recall being a panda, leopard, mouse, owl, and gypsy … I still have the first three in a trunk in the basement and my kids have worn them).  We were allowed to ‘trick or treat’ with our friends (usually three or four others) within a five or six block radius of our house.  Older brothers or sisters were enlisted to escort the younger children (under 10); no one over about eleven or twelve ever dressed up or went out ‘trick or treating’ in those days (that would have been considered very ‘uncool’). 

You knew which houses had the best treats (homemade fudge and candy apples; chocolate bars – full size – or bags of chips) and which had the worst (those sticky brown ‘candy kisses’ that no one ever ate; regular apples).  No one checked your bag when you got home (my mother, however, did make apple pies from the plain apples we dug out of the bottom of the pillowcases we used to collect our ‘booty’).  And, yes, there was the occasional band of mischievous boys who would toss toilet paper over trees, or throw eggs at a front door, but they were rare (and the houses they ‘tricked’ were generally owned by people who kept their lights out and didn’t provide treats).

Son #1 as a Smurf

Smurf Son #1

When my boys were young, I made (or helped them make) all their costumes.  At about eighteen months, they went out dressed as cowboys; at two and a half, it was in a clown suit (a lot of costumes were re-used, including both my old panda and mouse costumes).  It took me more time to make a Smurf costume for son #1 than it took me to sew my original wedding dress.  I turned my boys into Transformers, mummies, robots, Dracula, the Grim Reaper, several animals, and everything in between.  I never considered ‘store bought’ costumes for either of them (except, occasionally, a mask), partly because of the outrageous cost, but also because it was just so much fun helping them come up with a costume idea, and then seeing it realized. 

I do admit to ‘buying into’ the ridiculous fears related to razor blades in apples, etc. (which all turned out to be urban myths) and tossing out anything the boys brought home that wasn’t wrapped and sealed (I also admit to confiscating at least four or five Crispy Crunch mini chocolate bars from each of them, and all Crunchie bars – as a sort of ‘payment’ for making their costumes!) 

Optimus Prime and the Clown (1988)Their father escorted them on their sojournas through the neighbourhood while I stayed home to dole out candy to the 150 or so children who came to our door (one of our neighbours went all out on Halloween, and we’d get kids from all over town showing up to troll our neighbourhood and check out his house.  In the 1980s and early 90s, no one decorated their house ahead of time, and few went to the lengths Chuck did – he had dry ice oozing out of the front door, strobe lights on the walk, creepy music, and spooky characters that would pop out from behind gravestones, rush out of the garage with chainsaws, or materialize from the mist. Despite the fact that my oldest son KNEW who lived in the house [he went to school with Chuck’s daughters]  he always insisted on crossing the street before he reached their house, and he never, ever went to the door!)

Fast forward twenty years – the stores are full of Halloween decorations, costumes, candy etc. by mid-September (there’s even a store in our city that specializes ONLY in Halloween products and is open for only two months every fall).  People start filling their front yards with all manner of spider webs and gravestones and witches and skeletons in mid-October, and some places (like the little town of Fisherville we visited last week) hold contests for the best decorations.

Super Mario meets the Easter Bunny (1989)Many communities host ‘haunted houses’, malls and community centres offer ‘safe’ environments for trick-or-treating, and just about everyone I know either hosts or gets invited to some sort of costume party (usually held on the weekend before the 31st).  Halloween has gone from being a single evening of fun and adventure for children to a full blown, no-holds-barred commercial experience for ‘kids of all ages’.  It’s no longer about praying for lost souls, filling a sack with forbidden treats, or threatening to trick those who don’t take part.  Instead, it’s about outlandish decorations and expensive costumes, emptying your wallet to pay for it all, and tricking yourself into believing that it’s all just ‘good fun’.  We’ve lost sight of what Halloween is supposed to be about; we’ve corrupted it.

I don’t deny that change is constant, and I willingly embrace those changes that move us forward.  But far too much of what was once simple and innocent and harmless has turned complex and commercial and worrisome. I know we can’t go back, but I sure wish some things were still the way they used to be – long before I reached … the other side of 55.

Halloween 1958

Hallowween 1958 (I'm the Panda on the right; my sister's the Leopard). Those were the 'good old days'.

  1. Margie permalink
    October 30, 2011 9:09 pm

    I loved Halloween as a child, and I still enjoy going out with my grandchildren to ‘trick or treat’. Although the event has become too commercial, the one thing that has become really awesome is the way people carve pumpkins now! Some are absolute works of art!

    • October 30, 2011 9:56 pm

      We’ve certain come a long way from the standard pumpkin carvings of the last decade! (And I still ‘treat’ myself with a few rolls of Rockets and a few miniature peppermint patties!)


  2. October 30, 2011 6:45 pm

    I’m so sorry that some adorable Halloween decorations, bulletin boards, etc. had to go by the wayside along the way, also. I assure you my decorations were tasteful, harmless and a happy bridge to Thanksgiving in that anticipated time for a holiday after Labor Day. You were a cute panda!
    My husband is doing “trunk or treat” duty as I type this as I have a scheduled web meeting w/ students tonight. Oh darn! Anyway it’s a church activity where trick or treating takes place in the parking lot from all the trunks of cars. It’s been a great success for several years.

    • October 30, 2011 7:21 pm

      With all the concerns ‘out there’ about kids going door to door on Halloween, at least you’re providing a way parents can keep things under control. I sure wish life was as ‘easy’ as it was when we were kids.


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