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Ghosts of Halloween Past


Admittedly, I grew up in a different era. Despite the turbulent sixties, the nineteen-seventies still held some of the family values espoused by television of the era such as Little House on the Prairie or the Waltons. This was especially true for me since I grew up in a small Southern town. We lived in the same two-bedroom house that my great-grandparents had purchased near the textile mill where they worked. Admittedly, our family was not the traditional two-parent family with two point two children, a dog and a cat. My great-grandmother, whom we called Nanny, cared for me and my younger brother while our single mother worked or occasionally partied. Our neighbourhood had few young families; still being filled primarily with the greying peers of my Nanny. But overall, it was not a bad childhood.

It was also an era when tradition still meant a great deal. Growing up, one of my favourite traditions was Halloween. Most of the house in our community would decorate with pumpkins or ghosts made from old bed sheets. But it was the treats that filled our bags that I awaited most expectantly each year. In those days, it was still common to be offered home-made goodies such as candied apples, popcorn balls or cookies. Our Southern neighbours always brought out their best each Halloween. It was also a wonderful time to re-connect with people, whom you might not have seen in a while. I remember my mother stopping to talk to an old friend from high school, who had made her famous popcorn balls with warm caramel. There was something so magical about those dark nights.

I tried to remember if I had a store bought costume and I am sure that I must have at least once, but it is the homemade costumes that kept filling my mind. Of course, there was the traditional ghost made of old sheets. But there was also the year that my brother and I cross-dressed. My mother put him in one of my frilliest dresses and applied a thick layer of her make-up and an old wig. The biggest embarrassment for my five or six year old brother must have been the bra that they filled with old socks. For me, we found an old suit borrowed I suppose to an uncle or one of my mother's boyfriends; perhaps it was even left years before by the father that abandoned us. There were other homemade costumes as well such as hobos (what we fondly called homeless men in those lost days) or princesses made with crowns from scraps of old tin foil wrapped around cardboard. But whatever the costume, it was always proudly reflected and perfected in front of the large mirror in the living room for all to see.

In many ways though the seventies were also a turbulent time of transition into this modern world in which we find ourselves. I must have been about nine or ten the year that our church began to have its annual Halloween carnival. It did so because of the stories in the news about razor blades or poisons found hidden in candy. How much of that was urban myth I do not know, but it was frightening enough for the adults in my world to do away with candied apples, popcorn balls and homemade cookies. Instead we dressed in our homemade costumes and headed to our ornately decorated church.

It was a relatively new building with dozens of classrooms; each was decorated and filled with something for children. There was the fishing game where candy magically appeared upon your pole when you tossed it behind the curtained alcove. There were also traditional Halloween games such as bobbing for apples or the gypsy that would tell your fortune. You could even win a whole cake for your family at the cake walk. For the older children and teens, there was even a haunted house with peeled grapes for eye balls, jell-o for brains and corn syrup with red food colouring for blood. Overall, the night was just as magical as those door-to-door Trick-or-Treating adventures had been.

I was loathing to outgrow this tradition. As a teen, I would help out with the annual carnival at church. Of course, my rebellious brother was more likely to get into some mischief with his friends that put the 'trick' into Trick-or-Treat. But those tricks were limited to egging or toilet papering houses of neighbours who might have committed some slight during the previous year; mild by today's standards I suppose.

With the notable exception of the time early in my older children's lives that we were in a radical church that preached everything to do with Halloween was of the devil, I have tried with limited success as a mother to re-create those magical memories for my own children. Being the free thinker that I am, I quickly disposed of those teachings as ridiculous and re-instated the traditions of my own childhood. I would dress them in homemade costumes that mirrored those of own childhood.

I remember the year that I was studying for my certification as an emergency medical technician. I raided my first aid kit and wrapped each of them in bandages. Then using charcoal and that magical mixture of corn syrup and red food dye from my own childhood, I created elaborate bruises and cuts all over them. We tore up old clothes for that added touch. Then I sent them out with my ex-husbeast as I donned my own costume of a clown. I sat on our well-lit front porch with bags of goodies, homemade cookies and punch as well as balloons by the score. I gave out over one hundred bags that Halloween and each of my four children returned with their father heavy laden with candy. We were living in a small Texas town at the time and it was a close to my own childhood memories as we ever got.

I have struggled more with my younger two children. My eight year old son has a hybrid of my own Halloween memories and modern ones. His father is Mexican-American and we lived in a Latino area of Los Angeles. Like my childhood, the houses were elaborately decorated with ghosts and pumpkins. At least one house on the street would go all out each year and create a haunted house in the front yard...with peeled grapes for eye balls, jell-o for brains and corn syrup for blood still. But for my former partner, who grew up poor, homemade costumes were never good enough for his only child. He or we would spend an outrageous amount of money each year on the best, most fashionable Halloween costume available.

This was not always successful. I remember the first year when my new husband and I had him for the day and his father had him that night. He had bought our son a Darth Vader costume and himself a Darth Mal. We dressed him in the costume and took him to trick-or-treat at the local mall where his father would pick him up. The problem was that my son, who was not quite four at the time, was frightened of his own costume. He kept crying until my husband said enough. We went into the Disney Store and purchased a pair of Sponge Bob pyjamas that became his new costume. Of course, when his father arrived he pooh-poohed his fears and insisted upon dressing him back in the Star Wars costumes before taking him Trick-or-Treating. But there must not have been any lasting psychological damage because our son adores anything Star Wars to this day.

It is my youngest daughter for whom I am most concerned about losing this wonderful tradition. In England, where we live now, Halloween has not been the big holiday that I remember from my childhood. My husband, who is less than five years younger than me, does not ever remember going Trick-or-Treating. The flats on our estate that are brightly lit for Christmas are bare at Halloween. While I purchase candy each year, it is only a handful of older children, who bravely knock upon our decorated door. I have often thought about instating a Halloween carnival such as those held by my church through my daughter's nursery or the residents' association, but few other adults have any interest in helping out. My husband is adamant too about the dangers of Trick-or-Treating; besides with the horrid late October weather our daughter has had a cold each year.

But I admit that I am hopeful this year. For the first time, my now three year old daughter is demanding to know what she will be for Halloween. She has pulled her Disney's Princesses' dress, crown and shoes from her dress up box and proudly pronounced that she will be a princess this year. So I am once again making plans...if somewhat smaller this time...for an old-fashioned Halloween.

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