Things don’t always get better, sometimes they get worse. Take Halloween for example. Halloween is a shadow of the holiday it used to be.
I was born in 1959. When I was in my “Halloween prime” from, say, 6 to 13 years old, or from 1965-1972, Halloween was very different for the young. Back then Halloween was primarily a children and adolescent holiday. It was all about “trick or treat” and God help the poor sap that didn’t give out treats or have a good relationship with the neighborhood teenagers. If you had an ax to grind, Halloween was the night to do it. Adults had their way with you all year long, but on Halloween, it was legal within reason, to take your revenge. We’re not talking about serious crime or vandalism, just pranks that could cause an uncomfortable amount of work for the victims.
In today’s politically correct social environment, Halloween has degenerated into toddler trick or treating during assigned daylight hours, on a designated night and adult custom parties. In a way, for many adults, Halloween has taken the place of New Year’s Eve. Strict drinking and driving laws have all but killed New Year’s Eve, but that’s another blog.
But I digress, let’s start from the beginning. In my small, Western Pennsylvania home town, we had a Halloween parade every year on Halloween evening at sunset. If Halloween fell on a Monday, well that was the night of the parade – school night or not. Let’s get it right, Halloween is “All Hallows Eve,” the night before the Catholic holiday of All Saint’s Day.
In the Catholic church, All Saints Day is a holy day of obligation. That meant if you were Catholic, and almost everyone in my home town was, you had to go to church and honor all those Catholics that were considered the holiest – the Saints. The night before, All Saints Day was the Devil’s night – the night his power was at its peak or something like that. It was “All Hallow’s Eve” or Halloween. To a child, that little factoid made Halloween that much more sinister. It was a magic evening when the Devil was out on the town.
The Halloween parade was always sponsored by our local volunteer fire department. It was a huge community event. The fireman would park one or two the biggest, badest fire trucks in the center of the downtown business area. The firetrucks then served as a base-camp for the parade.
The parade drew thousands of people from the surrounding area and was a boon to downtown business. The local police would block off about a quarter mile of the main street. The parade line would form in a giant, oblong circle from the Methodist Church to the E & E Restaurant and back. Children, parents, teenagers, and even costumed adults would process in an uninterrupted line, round and round, for about two hours while the rest of the town watched from the spectacle from the sidewalks.
The week before the parade, the firemen would post a list of the costumes that would be eligible for prizes. There were like a hundred prize categories. Cowboy, spaceman, Superman, witch, ghost, pirate, skeleton, etc., etc., etc., all qualified for an award, usually a ten dollar savings bond. There were a lot of prizes given away.
The fireman would walk up and down the center of the giant circle looking for costumes that best fit the categories. When they found a winner, they would take him or her to the firetruck and announce the category and winner over the truck’s public address system.
Another weird event that took place during the parade was the initiation of the incoming crop of varsity cheerleaders. The senior cheerleaders would “haze” the newcomers by forcing them to dress in men’s long underwear, work boots, hair curlers and cold cream on their faces. They were then made to scrub the main street of town on their hands and knees. As the new girls were scrubbing, sometimes with only a toothbrush, the senior cheerleaders (dressed in their regular cheerleading outfits) would march up and down the line of initiates like drill sergeants, pointing out areas that were missed and chastising them for not scrubbing hard enough. Even as a child, I remember thinking how odd this was. It was scary to see these pretty girls made to “dress down” and be humiliated in this way. Keep in mind that in a small town, varsity cheerleaders were an elite group of beautiful young women. The initiation was a way to impart a degree of humility before they assumed this lofty role.
At the conclusion of the parade, an announcement was made over the firetruck PA system to march past the firetrucks in single file. All participants were given a bag of Hershey’s assorted chocolate bars. This ritual signaled the end of the parade. Let the trick or treating begin!
In my home town, trick or treating was at least a two-night activity. The first night was the remainder of the evening after the Halloween parade, the second was usually the next evening. We would leave the parade downtown and head for home “hitting” as many houses as we could on the way, sometimes filling giant shopping bags with candy. And I’m not talking about penny candy; in those days people gave away full sized candy bars which today look like the $1.50 size sold in convenience stores. Since the parade didn’t end sometimes until 9:00 PM, it was presumed that the next night was dedicated solely to trick or treating. This is when the real haul was made. I’m not kidding when I say it took more than a month to eat all the candy we harvested from locals – even with mom and dad “dipping” into my stash.
This trick or treating phase of Halloween usually ended for most kids at puberty – around age 12. After that, it was all about “corning.” I’ve mentioned “corning” to many people, but few outside Western PA have ever heard of this ritual. Corning began weeks before Halloween. What you did was sneak into a farmers corn field and steal a bag full of hard feed corn. Then you strip the corn from the ears and kept it in a bag until Halloween. The week of Halloween (the whole week before the holiday was fair game) you would sneak out with your friends, after dark, and throw the corn at the windows and porches of either people you didn’t like, or … people you did like. The object was to piss people off enough that they would chase you. You didn’t wear a costume, per se, but you did wear a mask to hide your identity.
Everyone knew which homeowner would react the most violently when “corned” and those were the houses you really targeted. It was a real “cat and mouse” game of measures and countermeasures and a lot of harmless fun. This one guy we use to target every year would get fiercely drunk and hide in the bushes outside his house. When he’d spot us he’d chase us halfway across town, swearing like a sailor the whole time.
It was important to get your plan straight before the target was hit. Four or five of us would bivouac in the shadows and plan the mission. The leader decided who would hit the front porch, who would hit the back porch, who would ring the doorbell, and so on. Timing was critical and we worked with military precision to ensure we all acted at the same time, and no one was left behind. At the appropriate moment, the signal was given and doorbells were rung, and corn was thrown. The grain made a loud clapping sound when it hit the windows and it wasn’t long before the doors flew open and the angry homeowner emerged to threaten, or better yet, chase us. If we were lucky, he’d give chase and we’d run for our lives.
Corning wasn’t without its risks. Every once and a while we’d miscalculate and hit a house with older teenage boys, or men fully capable of retaliating. More than once we were hit with water balloons, flour bombs, garden hoses, or simply wrestled to the ground and “roughed up” before comrades doubled back to help us escape from a seriously “pissed off” homeowner.
Ah, the good old days; how did it get away from us. Today when I ask young teenagers about Halloween, I usually get a blank stare and some kind of response such as: “Halloween is for little kids.” And they are right, why get excited about a holiday that has been so emasculated. It’s a cultural thing. As our culture becomes more matriarchal, social values tend to favor safety and security rather than adventure and risk-taking. Mothers have worked feverishly over the years to remove all risk from Halloween. Unfortunately, they have removed all the fun as well. Today, Halloween parades, even in my home town, are held in church or school parking lots, away from the hustle-bustle of the downtown. We have to keep the kids “safe.” No longer are these parades a central event of the community, drawing huge crowds. For the most part, if your toddler doesn’t participate in a parade, you would be completely unaware it existed at all. Teenagers that have only known this type of anemic event, obviously want to distance themselves from it at the first opportunity. And with no memory of the “hell raising” of yore, most don’t even consider “corning” or engaging in other harmless pranks.
Some might say that it’s all for the best; I disagree. In my day, kids were fearless and much more independent. On Halloween night, we were on our own. No parents chaperoned past the age of six. We walked the streets after dark alone and moving with purpose from house to house. We decided which houses were targets and which ones to avoid. We learned that the nicest houses were not always purveyors of choice treats. Sometimes good things came from unlikely places. We always said thank you and respected any effort.
As we got older and traded our treat bags for field corn bags, we keep our actions in check. We never crossed the line between a prank and vandalism. We knew what we were doing was a little “devilish,” but not really evil. We freely chose to perpetrate the pranks, then accepted the consequences, even if it meant taking a beating once and a while. We learned that taking a risk could be exciting and we learned to be responsible for our actions.
That was Halloween in my youth. Next week, my office is having a Halloween party and I’m not looking forward to it. No thank you. The idea of adults dressing up in ridiculous costumes, in the safety of our office, pretending to be something they are not, doesn’t sound like fun to me. Instead, I think I’ll skip the party and reflect on those Halloweens long ago when the dark, spooky October nights were filled with real risk and the promise of bountiful bags of candy, a new found freedom, and a sense of real adventure.