I remember a time when no one thought of Halloween until at least a week after Columbus Day. As the Pinta, Nina and the Santa Maria vanished from classroom walls, the orange, black and yellow construction paper rose to the top of the stack in the teacher’s closet. Bulletin boards in the school hallways began to display black cats, witches, ghosts, full moons and jack-o’-lanterns. Cheap plastic masks began to appear in grocery and drug stores.
Kids began to think about what character they would portray when the world of the living and the land of the dead approached perihelion. Their choices were influenced by personal inclination, the craftiness of their parents, and the materials available at home. Most kids would not wear the phony-looking, ill-fitting, uncomfortable, store-bought masks but even when they did, the mask was the only part of their costume that was purchased. The rest of their garb, as well as the ethos for the holiday, came from home.
Ghosts were draped in old bed sheets with ragged eye holes. Hobos reached into the damper of their oil heaters and smeared soot on their faces to create a 3-day shadow beard. A bandana stuffed with rags and tied to a long stick completed the look. Pirates got a Maybelline moustache, a wooden sword made of plaster lath, an eye patch, and one of Dad’s old vests. Wizards got a conical hat made of poster paper and covered with aluminum foil. A section cut from an old blanket, with a slit in the middle for the head and strange symbols painted on it, sufficed for a robe while a plain stick, painted with metallic gold paint, became a magic wand.
Skeletons of either sex wore a black sweatshirt with black jeans and black gloves. Bones were traced, front and back, with white adhesive tape. The face was darkened with damper soot.
Witches got a black poster paper conical hat with a broad brim, ashen faces smudged with damper soot, and an old straw broom. From those homes containing a Singer sewing machine emerged princesses and little Red Riding Hoods.
Nearly every kid carried an old pillow case to haul their goodies.
Kids who had no homemade garb, carried paper sacks from the grocery store and wore only a store-bought mask with their regular clothes were orphans. We let them go in front of us and we never tried to steal their candy. Our siblings, cousins and friends were susceptible to lightning raids which were mostly futile but fun.
Parents limited their involvement in this kid’s holiday to making costumes from whatever was at hand; carving the pumpkin; provisioning the home with homemade cookies, popcorn balls, peanut brittle, caramel apples, and store-bought candy; and greeting the trick-or-treaters on the appointed night. Parents did not walk the neighborhood with their kids and they did not, in the vainglorious name of “eating healthy”, rob their kids of their Halloween experience by giving them a few measly bucks from the “candy fairy” and seizing their candy.
During my childhood, parents made Halloween as a gift for the children and then let the children enjoy it. Halloween was just for the kids and 95% of it was homemade.
Those days are gone. And a fundamental part of American culture has been vanquished in the process. Commercialism has taken Halloween out of the home and away from the kids. Today, witless parents buy Halloween for their kids and adult buffoons think that Halloween is for them.
The commercial revenue from Halloween promotion is second only to the king’s ransom paid for our supreme holiday, Christspendmas. Now, adults decorate trees and shrubs for the spooky occasion and dole out millions for complete costumes made in China that have more to do with masquerade than Halloween.
The phenomenon of adults ransacking Halloween is symptomatic of a serious rot in the American way of life. Halloween appeals to post-Boomer adults precisely because these misguided folks want a celebration that avoids any family get-together and what they perceive as the “stress” of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If our major cultural traditions have lost their meaning such that simply observing them is dismissed as stress, then we are already bereft of precious cultural treasure. Stealing Halloween from the kids won’t restore substance to the shallow, whining adults who relegate Thanksgiving and Christmas to stress. But it does suggest that when the Boomers die off, American culture will hasten to the graveyard.
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