Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

So, I'll admit it. As a kid this was my favorite holiday. Even better than Christmas since I usually knew what I was going to get anyway. But Halloween? You just never knew how it was going to turn out. What would you experience? How much booty would end up raking in? What would everyone dress up as? Would something really weird happen? What if it rained! What a horrible thought! That would have ruined everything! Still, as a kid I can't remember a single rained-out Halloween, they were all dark, relatively dry and moon-lit, or that is how I remember them.

I also remember the old Halloweens when you'd come back home with a sack bulging with great home-made sweets, before the great scare of the late 1960s after which all parents were instructed to sort through their children's bags and throw away (THROW AWAY!) all the stuff that wasn't individually packaged, that is all the great home-made stuff went in the trash and you got to keep all the not-so-great store-bought stuff. In retrospect can we possibly argue that it was the beginning of the end of community and the ramping up of corporate control . . . ?

I never understood what all the parental fear was about. Halloween was suppose to be scary, right? So why throw out all the best stuff we had amassed trick or treating (which was hard work for a kid btw) . . . ?

By the beginning of the 1970s it had all changed and had some how become common wisdom that sickos (could be anyone) were just waiting for 31 October to roll around so they could poison or seriously injure some unsuspecting kid. If you weren't scared to death you weren't a serious parent, or so people thought. I was above trick or treating age by then (which was 13 in our family) but I was still expected to take my sisters out ("only to people we know well, and check what they get!"). This I usually accomplished by talking one or two friends to go with me on my supervisory duties, which usually included trying to scare the bajesus out of the kids we were responsible for, ya know older brother stuff.

So, still kinda fun, but in a different way and nothing like it had been before. Some purists of course say that you have to go all the way back to the 1950s to get the real "old Halloween", but my experiences in the 1960s in the small town South (and once in the Midwest when visiting my mother's family in Iowa) seem to be essentially the same as what my older friends and family experienced. In all I consider myself lucky.

So what was the whole scare about?

An article from 1987 introduced us all to the sociological concept:

The cause of our exaggerated fears about children are not well understood. Social scientists might explain them by pointing to the radical transformation of the American family that has taken place during the last 15 years.

The two-career family has given rise to "latchkey children", that is children who return home from school to empty houses. As we spend less and less time with our children we have become more and more fearful for their safety.

The easy psychiatric explanation is that we are merely projecting our fears of an uncertain world on to our children. While the actual causes still remain an intriguing social mystery, there can be little doubt that there is a growing sense in America that our children are no longer safe.

One of the surprising things about the myth of the Halloween sadist is how few copycat crimes it has inspired.

The most harmful effect of the myth seems to be the emotional difficulties it has caused both adults and children. The social production of unrealistic fears concerning child safety has approached the point where it now threatens to produce an entire nation of anxiety-ridden parents, and, more importantly, a generation of paranoid kids.

What about our kids? Did seydlitz pass on this very important element of American culture to his children? I tried to, but with the kids growing up in Berlin and later in Portugal it was difficult to get the old feel, but then we also had some advantages. My wife, who had no connection with Halloween was a great help and got into the whole spirit of the thing. Also once in Portugal we joined the local American club and then had a Halloween party for the kids every October 31st. So, yes ours have hopefully happy memories connected with this "holiday".

So, what about you, fellow barkeeps and loyal readers? Would you care to exchange your Halloween experiences with us? I'm very interested to know your memories of the event and what you do today to celebrate this great American tradition . . .


  1. So far this has been the best memory of Halloween...a lot more kids in costumes, and conversely, less candy left over for me and wife to eat.

  2. sheer-

    Thanks for commenting. Kinda out of the ordinary for us, but I saw a connection with one of our main topics . . . how America has changed.

    I'm interested in Halloween for educational reasons as well (my job) since communicating culture is difficult many times to get across. Also one wants to indicate that it's not ALL about consumerism, getting people to buy more junk they don't really need . . . that there was/is(?) a communal aspect to it which was very memorable for children, as I hope it was for the trick or treaters who showed up at ya'lls door . . .

  3. I grew with the candy scares of the 1970's. Razor blades in apples is the scary thing that I remember most. I'm not sure if that was a real fear or if it was something we made up as kids in our attempts to out-do, out-cool, and out-gross each other.

    Home-made candy - now that's interesting! Personally, I've never known anyone - ever - that made their own candy. That whole concept is pretty much alien to me, but it sounds pretty cool. Today, and for most of my life, it's always been the pre-packaged stuff.

    My most vivid memories of Halloween growing up for me were visiting the huge house belonging to one of the local Smaldone mafia families (there were a lot of Smaldone's in our neighborhood). We always got the best stuff there and getting to the front door required going up a series of cool-looking ramps which the Smaldone's had decorated. Getting to the door was an adventure in itself.

    I also remember trying to make my own robot costume with cardboard and duck tape. I learned that no amount of primer and silver spray paint can make tape-covered cardboard look like actual metal, but I made up for it with a bunch of battery-powered button-operated lights I installed.

    I currently live in base housing and, as you might expect, there are families everywhere. It's a mad-house of kids and parents and generally a lot of fun. I haven't been feeling well lately (allergies and a cold), so I opted not to dress up this year, but typically I go as a Scottish highland warrior. Kid's costumes were homemade this year - the daughter wanted to be Princess Peach (from the Nintendo video games) and the son wanted to be a UPS delivery man. That turned out pretty cool. Hopefully they will get some good memories out of it.

  4. Andy-

    Thanks for your comment. Highland warrior sounds sooo cool! And I think it great that your kids are having a lot of fun with the whole experience.

    The homemade candy I knew consisted of taffy, peanut brittle and one person I remember made pecan pralines . . . all were great, but alas gone now at least in terms of trick or treating . . .

  5. Oh, peanut brittle! How could I forget that? Had it growing up and still love it. My neighbors are from Texas and we recently got a batch of chili peanut brittle from their parents. If you haven't tried spicy peanut brittle before you must - it is to die for.

  6. Funny, that while I remember the whole business about the homemade candy being scary, my mom was always making some sort of treat from scratch. What she wouldn't do, good child of the Depression that she was, was spend her husband's hard-earned money on some fancy store-bought pogie bait. So for me, getting Three Musketeers bars or M&Ms was a real big deal.

    Couple of things I remember from childhood Halloweens;

    1. "Trick or Treat for UNICEF". Wonder what happened to that? In the Sixties that was a Big Deal, but it seems to have completely disappeared. My wife found this gawdawful book called "Jack The Bum and the Halloween Handout" which my daughter loves to pieces that's all ABOUT the whole ToTfU thing. Strange little piece of popular culture trivia.

    2. For the life of me, I can't remember a single thing I dressed up as.

    3. I do remember actually getting tired of candy after a week or so. Only time I remember feeling that way, and it usually passed after another week or two.

    The funny thing is that much as I get more scroogy about Christmas as my own children rocket about in an advertising-fueled greedfest between November and the New Year I find myself enjoying their sugar-craving love for dressup and spooky decorations more every year.

  7. Well, yea, I remember getting a bit tied of candy as well . . . and yes it was hilarious (only wish I had thought of that prank myself, say 15 years ago) . . . thanx Chief and Andy . . .

  8. I come from an era where the parents shoved the kids out the door and told 'em to be back by eight or so. Helicopter parenting hadn't been invented yet, so nobody apparently ever thought about all of the horrible things that might happen to their precious little ones. And there were lots and lots of little ones in California in the 50s. Our kids would be amazed at the sheer numbers of rug rats in 50s America's neighborhoods.

    AFAIK nothing bad ever did happen, even in "crime-ridden" L.A., where I was born and raised. The worst thing I recall about Halloween was all of those nice ladies who'd give us apples or oranges instead of the sweets we craved. We'd grumble, but we'd end up eating them, which may help account for the amazing fact that fat kids were few and far between.

    We also got a lot of homemade cookies, yeah, peanut brittle, fudge and the like. Everybody was poor, so the thought of going to Walmart (oops, didn't have Walmart) and stocking up on huge bags of candy was a little much. And, no, kids weren't asked for their opinions.

    As we got older, this cohort of about fifty or so (baby boom, recall) budding juvenile delinquents, er, teenagers, I hung with started trying the patience of the nice homeowners. Yeah, we did the TPing and we soaped windows, almost invariably at childless households where the old man was also invariably a prick. It was when we graduated to using less benign things such as eggs and dog shit as props for our "humorous" pranks that a consensus developed among our parental units that we were getting too old for Halloween.

    Next came parties, cars and girls. But that's a whole 'nother story.

  9. Thanx Publius, I was hoping for a story from the fabulous 50s and funny enough I got the odd apple and orange as well. The South always was a bit behind the times.

  10. I wish come here earlier ... I can participate on this one:

    I don't understand why or when Halloween became an adult holiday; it was always for this kids when I was little. I kind of straddled the scares so there were home-made goodies (candied & caramel apples and cookies) in with the new supermarket sweets. My most coveted items were Hershey's dark chocolate bars, and I would apportion them out like gold!

    I remember getting huge bagfuls ... people always gave more than one of everything. My joy was in separating the booty into different categories, and beneficently (*cough*cough*) donating the less coveted items to my sister or mom.

    Dad manned the front door station with a huge barrel of candies. It was a whole neighborhood affair, and I remember my mother scoffing at the cowards who would turn their lights off and cower in their homes so as not to be bothered by us rugrats. (To this day, I am ashamed if I do not do my duty, but sadly, mine is not a kid-friendly street.)

    My favorite costume: Auntie Lola sewed a mint-green cat outfit for me, with pale green satin ears. I loved that outfit. I also went as a princess in some hemmed sequined, strapless dresses of Mom's, properly nipped and tucked and with a cape.

    Even at the time I remember thinking, "Wow, Mom wore Halloween stuff on days when it wasn't even Halloween!"

  11. Lisa-

    "Auntie Lola sewed a mint-green cat outfit for me, with pale green satin ears. I loved that outfit."

    Cool. Thanx for your comment.

  12. The first Halloween I can recall was when we were in this tiny little spot on the KS map. Mom went all out and dyed an old white shirt red, put a "Smoky Bear" hat on my noggin and turned me into a Canadian Mountie.

    Growing up in a rural area, my Halloween memories are full of hay-rack ( hay-rick to the cognoscenti ) rides behind a Johnny Pop, bobbing for apples and home-made treats at home. Love those Popcorn Balls!

    We didn't go Trick-or-Treating until we moved to the big city, Amelia's hometown, Atchison. Good movie, BTW, Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, if you haven't seen it yet.

    The nuns up the hill from us were always a good place to go, mom 'n' dad taking us out. I got that chore when I got older.

    Dad picked up some of that new-fangled electronics training while he was in the navy, and he worked part-time at a TV and Radio shop. So we early on got a black and white "Maggot Box" and a color one later on in the early 60s.

    Part of our holiday tradition was going to the flix to see classics like "King Kong", "Frankenstein King of the Monsters", "Wolfman", etc. I remember the livin' daylights scared out of me. Great fun.

    Later on, TV shows like "Dr. San Guinary" out of Omaha and "Crematia Post Mortem" out of KC.

    These days, where we're at now, private or church parties are the thing. We don't see kiddies T or T-ing around here, although a young couple and their 2 little ones surprised us this time.


  13. Oh, how could I forget helping Gramma make pumpkin pies right out of the pumpkin and even better helping her eat 'em!

    With real genuine whipped cream on the top. Something to die for!

    Well, let me put in this way, better.

    A one-bite ticket to Heaven itself! :)

    Still my favorite pie, but make sure the ingredients include "pumpkin" when you buy the store-bought.


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