My new neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has gone skull over tarsi for Halloween. Last year on October 31, families were huddled inside, devouring mini-Snickers they had ordered on Amazon while watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” This year the stolid, stately brownstones have erupted into what look like the pre-pandemic haunted houses; they are festooned with 10-foot glowing skulls, spiders the size of Great Danes, light-up skeletons, and garden gravestones. I half expect a hatchet-wielding clown to pop up from behind the shrubbery.
This being Manhattan, there will not be trick-or-treaters climbing the artfully cobweb-strewn stairs to hit the apartment buzzers or set off the security alarm. In my swanky hood, there will be a well-regulated block party for kids to show off their costumes and collect candy from people who are not strangers: this Sunday from 6-7 I will be there passing out treats to little goblins, ghouls, princesses, and superheroes.
When my sons were babies and we lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I watched in horror as kids, maybe in costume, maybe not, trick or treat at convenience stores, laundromats, bakeries, bars, coffee shops, and tattoo parlors, some of which happily passed out candy, while others chased the little beggars away.
I was not about to subject my kids to that. As soon as they were old enough to toddle down a sidewalk carrying a plastic jack-o’-lantern, on Halloween we took a train out to a prosperous suburb, where Halloween was done the way it was meant to: going house to house, ringing the bell, shouting “Trick or Treat!” at the top of your little lungs, having your costume admired or questioned (“What are you supposed to be?”), and sent on your way with a treat, from block to block until their pumpkins were sufficiently filled. Then we got back on the train to Manhattan and I collected my mothering fee in kisses, both wet sticky ones and foil-wrapped ones.
My goal was to recreate for my sons my own Duluth childhood Halloweens. My kids did miss out on my favorite part of Halloween, wearing a costume to school. Their progressive school believed “We learn about holidays, but we do not celebrate them” (with the exception of Kwanzaa). One daring teacher had her second graders make paper bag masks on Halloween, and somehow passed it off as an art activity.
When I was a kid, wearing a Halloween costume to school felt almost transgressive, the equivalent of a no-holds-barred Carnival or Mardi Gras. We girls were not in our usual smocked plaid dresses, ankle socks, and saddle shoes: we were Disney’s Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, kitty cats with drawn-on whiskers and pinned-on ears and tails, Super Girl with a red cape and much longer skirt than the one sported by the comic book character. My favorite costume was Alice in Wonderland, purchased at Woolworth’s, a scratchy blue polyester dress with a white pinafore attached, and a plastic mask held on with a flimsy elastic string: my eyeglasses made wearing the mask extremely problematic.
The boys, freed from their button down shirts and slacks, were Frankenstein and Count Dracula, cowboys with pop guns, Indian chiefs with feathered headdresses and rubber tomahawks, ghosts hidden under bed sheets their mothers had grudgingly given up.
Minimal learning went on that day, as the morning was spent in the frenzied anticipation of the school Halloween parade, where each classroom took turns showing off their costumes to the kids in the other grades, all of us similarly attired. This would have been joy enough, as we were captive in our assigned classrooms except for the dreaded gym class or to shiver outside during fire drills.
The school parade was the only time anyone could admire your Halloween costume; a late October night in Duluth meant your carefully chosen costume was covered up by your winter coat, and if your mom had her way, a scarf and hat as well.
But there were even greater pleasures awaiting us back in our classroom: home baked cupcakes and cookies with icing that was predominantly orange food coloring, bowls of candy corn, bags of circus peanuts (I never trusted a kid who ate circus peanuts), and the adorable tiny candy pumpkins with green stems that were almost too cute to eat, all of which the class moms had dutifully dropped off to give us kids a head start on the Halloween sugar binge to come.
I don’t remember kids’ Halloween parties as part of the tradition; although I must have gone to one, as I have a disturbing memory of bobbing for apples, a game that had to have been invented by pioneer children who had nothing to play with but water and apples.
Decorating for Halloween was putting a jack-o’-lantern with a candle inside on your front stoop. Jack-o’-lantern carving was regarded by my mom with the same enthusiasm she showed for Easter egg dyeing: these damn kids are going to make a holy mess in my kitchen.
Halloween was a kids’ holiday. We set off on our own from an early age, our parents staying home to hand out candy to other people’s children. Lakeview Avenue, the street I grew up on, was a treasure trove all by itself; it was pure greed that sent my sister and me off to other streets.
We could count on every house on our block to deliver the goods, whether kids lived there or not. Our cries of “Trick or Treat!” brought forth handfuls of Bazookas or Dubble Bubble (the same gum minus the comic), red wax lips and black wax moustaches, licorice pipes (ugh), full-size candy bars, including the long lost Zagnut and Bun, the occasional box of Cracker Jacks, with prizes kids stupid enough could choke on, Bit-O-Honeys and Milk Duds, and tooth-cementing Mary Janes and Sugar Daddies.
There was one house on Lakeview Avenue where I saw the woman who lived there once a year, on Halloween night, when she passed out the most delicious homemade popcorn balls, buttery and sticky, swathed in colored wrap. My sister and I collected our booty in pillow cases; even though our boundaries for trick or treating expanded each year, I never did get to stuff my pillowcase like Santa’s sack. It was still a bacchanal of candy when my sister and I got home, which my dentist dad somehow managed to turn a deaf tooth to, while my mother groused about wrappers strewn around the house.
By 12, you were regarded as too old to trick or treat: too big to fit into a store-bought costume and too self-conscious to dress up. I spent a few Halloweens trailing behind my younger sister, despite the fact that she never gave up so much as a Tootsie Roll Pop to me in return for my chaperonage.
In my sophomore year in high school, I accidentally ended up with a bad boyfriend, bad in every sense including skin and kissing. He and his knucklehead pals introduced me to the trick part of Halloween: soaping car windows, TPing houses, grabbing and smashing those carefully or clumsily carved jack-o’-lanterns. My night ended when a future professional arsonist poured gasoline into a car tire, lit it up with his Zippo, and sent the blazing tire rolling down one of Duluth’s steepest hills. In a rare moment of common sense, I headed home almost as fast as that fiery tire. By the next Halloween, I had a new boyfriend, one who had never so much as made a prank phone call. From then on, Halloween was just a time when you could see cute kids in costumes and buy half-price bags of candy November 1st. Until I had my own kids and did it all over again (minus the tricks).
This Sunday I will put on a ladybug costume over black leggings and a turtleneck, stick a band with bobbing antennae on my head, go to the block party, and feel sorry for every kid who gets handed a gluten-free, peanut-free, organic treat made with a natural sweetener that is not sugar (the most natural sweetener imaginable). And I will hope that out there, in the rest of the country that is not New York City, there will be kids, maybe even free-range kids without their parents’ tagging along to keep them safe from whatever monsters they think are out there, kids dressed as dinosaurs, Spider Man, or Cruella de Vil, kids who are keeping this silly and beloved trick-or-treating tradition alive.
Featured image: Vintage Stock Photos
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