Today I am remembering Hallowe’en traditions, as they used to be.
What’s with the apostrophe?
Halloween originated as the Eve of All Saints Day, which used to be All Hallows Day. That accounts for the ‘hallow’ part of Halloween. Lots of you already know that. So did I. But I recently learned the rest of the story. The Eve of All Hallows Day, or Hallows Eve, should have given us Halloweve. But, back in the past, instead of using Eve as an abbreviation for Evening (meaning the night before the big day), Evening was shortened to Even. So you had Hallows Even, which eventually became Hallowe’en, and still later… Halloween. Now you know.
Halloween used to have October all to itself.
When I was a child, there was no competition from other October holidays, and every free moment of the elementary school day for the entire month of October was devoted to drawing detailed pictures of haunted houses populated by skeletons, ghosts and black cats who hissed as witches rode brooms across the face of the moon. When we tired of haunted houses, we drew graveyards with tombstones carved to read R.I.P., I. M. Dead and U. R. Too. Instead of reading about Harry Potter’s Halloween feast, we walked with Ichabod Crane as the teacher read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There wasn’t a pilgrim or Thanksgiving turkey in sight. And Christmas? That was far, far away. No candy canes, no ads for Christmas toys, no Hallmark channel movies. Only Halloween enlivened October.
Halloween has always been scary.
At first, people believed that the dead and/or their spirits walked the earth on the night before All Hallows Day. Much later children disguised themselves and used the evening as an occasion to play tricks on their neighbors—think of Tootie and the flour sack in the old musical,“Meet Me In St. Louis.”
Still later came the notion of providing treats to avoid the children’s tricks. By the time I was a child, the custom had evolved to chanting “Trick or Treat!’ at the door. In that more trusting time, we children would often be invited into the home and asked, “What are you going to do?” You had to have something to offer to get a treat—a joke to tell, a song to sing, a little dance—but the treats were great! Candy apples rolled in crushed nuts, popcorn balls gooey with caramel, rich sugary fudge, and homemade cookies. Instead of a ransom to avoid mischief, the treat had become a reward for performing some trick to amuse the household. And when we hauled the loot hime, no one checked our candy, and with no lectures about nutrition or tooth decay, we ate until we could hold no more. Scary!
Glowing in the dark.
Costumes have changed, too. We wore costumes made at home. One year, my brother and I wore paper sacks from the dry cleaner (apparently it was the pre-plastic wrap era) on which our father had painted skeletons with white bones highlighted in a pale glowing green. We were probably more laden with radium than a wristwatch dial—but who knew? Happily we traipsed from house to house, mob after mob of children, with nary an adult in sight: Hobos, Ghosts, Gypsies, Pirates, Witches, Princesses and Clowns. If there was a Superman costume, it was homemade and clearly ahead of its time. The nights I remember were cool and crisp, with air that held the nutmeg scent of dried leaves and often a tang of woodsmoke.
Parties and hayrides
In high school, a classmate might throw a Halloween party. We’d carve Jack o Lanterns, with a prize for the best one. There would be apples floating in a tank of water. You had to bob to get one—that meant putting your face in the tank and grabbing the apple with your teeth—no hands allowed. And for snacks we had caramel or even chocolate popcorn balls with apple cider in punch bowls smoking with dry ice. Sometimes there would be hayrides under clear cold skies lit by full, harvest moons. Back then, a hayride didn’t mean square hay bales on a flatbed trailer, but slippery, crunchy, resilient mounds of straw in wagons built to hold hay, not people, and pulled by massive, patient draft horses, instead of tractors. We sang songs from our parents’ day—Shine on Harvest Moon, You Are My Sunshine, and Clementine. We laughed ridiculously hard at ancient knock-knock jokes, so hard that some of us fell off the wagon and had to run to catch up. The horses were never stopped to wait for stragglers, so jumping back on required the help of friends who would pull you to safety, or failing that, tumble off themselves. When the night ended, we’d walk home, under a black sky pierced with white-hot, quivering stars, kicking through drifts of leaves, and smelling the cold, the ripeness, the anticipation that was autumn.