Three hundred and sixty-four days of the year parents tell their children to never take candy from strangers. Then, on the last day of every October they dress those same children up in masks and weird costumes and tell them to go out on the streets at night and either threaten or beg strangers to give them candy.
Halloween is traditionally a holiday observed on the eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows, or All Saints Day. In the Middle Ages it was believed that restless souls of the recently dead wandered during the year until All Saints Day, when their fate would be decided. All Hallows Eve was their last chance to get revenge on their enemies before entering the next world. Some people, fearing the consequences, would wear masks to disguise themselves.
It wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that Halloween began to be celebrated in the United States and not until the 1930s that children began trick-or-treating. Since then costume parties, haunted house attractions, and watching horror films have also become popular.
When I was a child Halloween was a special night after a long day filled with anticipation. My brother and sister and I and our friends couldn’t wait for nightfall to head out onto the dark streets and ring as many doorbells as we could.
On the night of the past Halloween, postponed several days by Hurricane Sandy, my wife and I and a neighbor sat out on our porch, on the top lip of the stairs, on a cold but dry night, with our cauldron of chocolate treats. We long ago learned that anything mostly chocolate was “the good stuff”.
As we put fun-size Milky Ways and Kit Kats into plastic pumpkins, coffin containers, and grab-and-go pillowcases, we began asking many of the children in disguise coming and going up and down our walk what they liked about Halloween.
“The most fun is dressing up,” said one girl, dressed as the Material Girl. “I’m an 80s rock star. I love Madonna.”
We wondered if she wasn’t chilly because of the weather.
“I’m not cold,” she said. “I’m insulated.”
One boy was a walking bundle of towels.
“Some safety pins and a lot of old towels and you’re warm,” he said.
We asked a puffed-up little boy in white what he was.
“I’m a cloud!”
“What is that on your pants?”
“What are those spots?”
“Is that your mom?”
“She’s a rainbow. We go together!”
A girl dressed as a witch said she liked seeing other kids in costumes.
“It’s a time for them to dress up like they’re not, to just be someone they never could be before.”
Others take a minimalist approach. When we asked one boy why his friend wasn’t wearing a costume, he said, “See, he’s on his cell phone. He’s not wearing a costume because he’s a businessman.”
Some children delight in the scary side of Halloween, the ghost stories, monsters, and gory special effects.
“I like Halloween because it’s fun, “said a boy dressed in a Warrior Wasteland costume. “People scare you a lot. It’s so amazing. I just like the horror of it.”
Other children take delight in seeing their heroes in the flesh.
A stocky six-year-old in black pants, a red over-sized jacket, a red hat, and an enormous black mustache told us he was Super Mario.
“Because I am,” he said. “My happy time, it was when I saw BATMAN! I love Halloween!”
Another boy dressed as Spiderman said Halloween was fun because “Kids dress up!”
“I like Spiderman because he’s red and white. If I was Spidey I would sling my webbing and save all the people.”
In a MSNBC poll adults were asked what their favorite part of Halloween was. More than 50 percent said it was seeing little kids dressed in costumes, while just 10 percent said it was eating candy. Our own unscientific poll revealed the exact opposite. Nine out of ten kids told us it was all about the candy.
“Candy is the best thing that ever happened to me on Halloween,” said someone in KISS regalia
“It’s my favorite season. You get all the candy. I’m a vampire,” said a girl with bloody fangs.
“They should have more Halloween weekends, and pass out a lot of candy,“ said a boy dressed as a pirate, waving a rubber sword.
Many children walked the streets in groups, the smaller ones accompanied by their parents. But, one teenager rode up alone on a bicycle, wearing a Beavis and Butt-Head latex mask. He jumped off his bike, which clattered to the ground, and ran up our walk. We tossed chocolate bars into his bag, asking him what he liked about Halloween. Sprinting back to his bike, he turned and shouted,
“Can’t talk, time is candy.”
Our chocolate bars moved briskly all night, followed by the lollipops our neighbor had brought.
“You just wolf down candy bars,” said a girl dressed as Fluff N Stuff, “but you can play with suckers, click them against your teeth.”
I asked several children what were the least-liked treats they had gotten. Among the worst offenders were Mary Janes, Necco Wafers, and Christmas ribbon candy.
“I don’t even know what Mary Janes are,” said a boy dressed as Luigi, in blue overalls, a gigantic green hat, and white gloves.
“They taste like molasses sawdust.”
The worst offender, however, turned out to be money. Towards the end of the night we ran out of candy, and since all we could see on the street were some stragglers, we gathered up our loose change rather than race to the corner store.
A small girl dressed as Popstar Keira, with a tiara on her head, came up the stairs smiling. My wife put some dimes and nickels into her extended hand. The girl looked at the coins and then up at us. She threw the coins down and started crying.
“I don’t want money! I want candy!”
She refused to be consoled until we finally found a full-size Hershey bar in our kitchen and brought it out to her.
After the streets were finally empty and Halloween was over, my wife and I popped a big bowl of popcorn and watched George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” on DVD.
When my wife, who had never seen the old black-and-white horror movie, finally realized what the zombies were after, she asked, “Seriously, are they trick-or-treating?”