Each year, as the month of October draws to a close—and late-afternoon shadows grow longer earlier, and there’s a chill in the wind, and bright leaves swirl down into a carpet of red and gold beneath bare branches—my thoughts turn not just to Halloween, but to Halloweens long past.
My earliest Halloween memory dates to the very early 1950s, when my mother took me by the hand to walk through deepening shadows to a field near our house. There, a vast army of weirdly clad older children and teenagers cavorted around a huge bonfire. Thoroughly impressed by the strange goings on, I clung to my mother’s hand as we circled the field and then pondered what I’d seen as we walked home. Was I wearing a costume? I can’t remember, and no photo survives. But in the glow of the fire I saw life-sized Old Gold cigarette packs dancing in little white boots, just like on TV. That image, incredible and indelible, lives on.
A year or two later, when my younger brother was old enough, my mother took the two of us trick or treating for the first time. (My father stayed at home to man our candy-stocked and jack-o’-lantern-bedecked front door—and to watch my infant sister.) I was a very small witch, and my brother was a tiny devil, complete with curling moustache and pointy goatee as supplied by my mother with a few deft strokes of Maybelline.
By the time I was six, I was happily enrolled in a Catholic girls’ school, and Halloween began to take on a more Christian aspect. The party in the school gym called for a specific sort of holiday attire: that of a saint or “someone to admire.” Each of us had to step forward and say who we were. In first grade I was Mary, Star of the Sea, in a beautiful blue gown and silver-star-studded veil fashioned by my grandmother. I loved that costume—but by second grade I had outgrown it. I turned to a favorite series of picture books (Miniature Stories of the Saints) to find a new Halloween persona—and decided on St. Agnes. My grandmother whipped up a suitably Roman-looking tunic and stole in pink and white, and I carried a little plush lamb, just like St. Agnes in the book. (I practiced saintly poses in front of the mirror to prepare for the big day.) The following year I went as St. Brigid of Ireland, in a rather striking gown, robe, and wimple, with a veil held in place by a gilt-ribbon headpiece. This outfit was, if possible, even more impressive than my much-loved Star of the Sea costume. (My grandmother was a wizard at the Singer). St. Brigid even made the trick-or-treat rounds that year; this getup was too special not to parade around the neighborhood.
Trick or treating was a lot more fun, of course, in the days when “older” children of eleven or so could shepherd the younger ones around, and Mommy and Daddy stayed home. Fear hadn’t yet banished unwrapped, often homemade goodies (cookies! doughnuts! caramel apples!) from trick-or-treat bags, and some diabolical candy executive had not yet invented the Mini Milky Way. In those days, too, it was not unusual to find a Mysterious Person lurking behind the door of a familiar house. The mother of one of my school friends used to dress up in wicked-witch gear and demand that each trick or treater shake her cold, clammy hand (she wore a glove that she would immerse in ice water) before the by-then trembling tot could dig into her cauldron for a candy treat. Some people still used to demand tricks of visiting kiddies, too: A riddle had to be answered or a song sung before the treats came out. One year my brother made the mistake of going out as a beatnik poet, in jeans, a Maynard G. Krebs–style sweatshirt, a beret, and yet another Maybelline goatee. He also carried a poetry book. To his horror, all over the neighborhood, people asked him to recite a poem. I was spared: Because I was dressed in Chinese finery (an embroidered-silk jacket with a dragon on the back and some Maybelline Fu Manchu whiskers), I could pretend not to speak English. My sister—cute, small, and dressed as something sweetly innocuous—was also spared.
And today it’s all changed. When I watch the Halloween sequence in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis—a 1944 film that looks back nostalgically to 1903—I realize that it is more like the Halloweens of my mid-century childhood than my childhood Halloweens are like today’s. There, on the MGM backlot, is the bonfire . . . and the kids in costumes put together from bits and pieces found in attics and closets . . . and the scary trek through dark and spooky streets with no watchful parents trailing behind . . . and even the temptation to be a little bit—but just a little bit—daringly naughty. (I’ve always suspected that Tootie Smith’s mother heard from Mrs. Braukoff in the morning.)
And I wonder whether today’s children feel anything like the wonder I felt when I first saw myself dressed up as Mary, Star of the Sea.