Everyone should experience a small town New England Halloween at least once in their life. I fear I may be veering dangerously into ‘when I was a kid…” territory here, but bear with me. Halloween in a Massachusetts autumn was a magical thing. A total sensory experience. The end of October is a time for change, when the weather turns from crisp and nippy to brisk and biting. And what better to break in the wintery weather but a holiday devoted to goblins and ghosts and toothy beasts? There is the smell of woodsmoke, strong enough that it perfumes your hair and sinks into your clothes. Strong enough that you can still smell it on your pillow the next morning. There is the sound of brittle leaves crunching underfoot, a crisp sharpness in the air you can taste on your tongue, the scent of the colder weather to come. Yes, a time of change. The perfect balance between warm and cold, old and new, light and dark.
It was a time for anticipation and excitement. Costume planning and preparation. Worries about the weather (will it be cold enough that you have to wear a bulky coat under your costume, making you look more fat fortune teller than mysterious tarot reader?). Would mom remember the cork to burn to smudge your face for your ‘hobo’ costume (though we called it a ‘bum’ back then)? If you were planning on a dressing as a ballerina or a Spanish dancer and the weather turned, you were out of luck, and sometimes in tears.
It was a time for sanctioned indulgence. Did we go marauding with teensy plastic jack-o-lanterns for our candy? Nay. Did we take out a small plastic goody bag? Nay, we did not. We went out with pillow cases for our booty. Pillow cases! And they were so heavy you had to twist the ends around and sling them over your back like a Christmas sack to get them home. You could spend hours sorting through your haul, trading a Reeces Peanut Butter Cup for a Sugar Daddy here and there. Mom would take the Good n Plenty. Dad will have a Butterfinger, thank you very much. Then you’d gorge. This was before we as parents became the sort of sugar nazis that most of us are today. I don’t remember being rationed, though perhaps we were. You just ate until your lips were coated with corn syrup and your fingers stuck together with super glue sweetness. There was always candy in your lunch box for a week, a bowl full on the counter at home.
It was a time for mischief and rites of passage. Who dared to walk up to the house where every year Mr. Donahue dressed as a pretty spot-on Dracula? Who would risk the spooky music and creepy sound effects for a king size Snickers bar? Often it was the first time you were able to go out, sans parents, roaming in small packs, always venturing a little further than you were allowed. There were the teenagers who egged cars and toilet papered trees–such a far cry from the stuff that teens make the news for today. There were goose bumps raised with ghost stories and dark thoughts smattered with urban myths, but nothing scary enough that it was still there by morning.
Halloween in New York was great for adults, parities and parades, but for kids it always seemed a somewhat sanitized experience. Trick or treating in apartment buildings or down a stretch of shops is fine, but it’s not the same. Halloween is fast making it’s presence known in other parts of the world, but it’s scaled down and organized. School events and structured candy rationing. I miss the freedom that Halloween brought. I wish that my kids could go out with a chill in the air and a shiver in their bones and come home with bags and bags full of goodies and even a couple of brewing nightmares.
As I write this, I wonder if it’s only Halloween I miss. Is it the innocence of childhood, or the innocence of a time gone by? Have things really changed that much? I miss the days when a razor blade in the apple was the worst that could happen.