Growing up in Westmont, NJ, was idyllic. It was Beaver Cleaver-ish. It was freedom on a bike with my neighborhood pals. It was chasing the milk truck and marveling at the glossy ice blocks that kept the bottles cold. Parents didn’t keep their kids under observation 24/7 because they didn’t need to. There were dangers to be sure, but they were mild, almost corny compared to the dangers my sons grew up with.
Halloween was the holiday of youth. Parents did no more than buy the candy or carve the pumpkin. If you were too young to trick or treat alone, your parent did NOT escort you around the ‘hood, filming every cute moment. Nope. Your parents made you tag along with an older sibling who would punish you by tripping you and stealing your candy bars or by losing you altogether near Cooper River, the accepted geographical boundary line between safety and dark, scary peril.
Halloween was ours. Costumes were simple. I was a hobo for many years. Hobo garb required a bandana tied to a stick, some old clothes and a dirty face. Ghost was the easiest costume of all. Grab a sheet and go. If you absolutely HAD to be something special—say Casper, The Friendly Ghost—your mom took you to Woolworth’s for a costume that came in a box with a cellophane window, a costume that had a decent mask, but whose bodysuit was a paper-thin, climb-in affair that mimicked the hospital gown, complete with string ties and gaps that exposed your behind.
The normal haul back then was a pillowcase filled with full-sized candy bars: Baby Ruths! Clark Bars! Milky Ways! Apples were politely accepted from kindly old women, then hurled at the closest tree. Razor blade-in-the-apple stories circulated freely, but were not considered a threat because none of us would have eaten a sissy old apple anyway, at least not on Halloween.
After what felt like hours of combing our neighborhood, we would head home for the absolute best part of the Halloween ritual, "The Dumping of the Candy Bars," in four acts.
Act One was "The coffee table move." My brother and I needed the blank canvas of our living room floor to marvel at our take and decide which trades to make. We had to be very careful not to break any of my mother’s coffee table treasures, as the one time this happened, the result was the unfortunate and very mysterious disappearance of our candy—forever.
Act Two was the disposal of pencils and other undesirables, including the well-meaning “small bag mixture,” loathed by all. This small bag mixture usually consisted of odds and ends from other Halloweens, perhaps an eraser and the occasional toothbrush, all 86’ed in the shrubbery.
Act Three was the actual wheeling and dealing: The Big Trade. Somehow, my brother always came out ahead on this one.
The last and best act, Act Four, was the surreptitious hiding, from each other, of our candy loot.
Back then, parents were absent from every part of Halloween. There were no craft projects involving glue guns, my mother did not dress up like a witch, there were no blow-up Halloween villages on any lawns, nor pop-up Halloween stores featuring slutty costumes for women and pimp costumes for men.
I vaguely remember small parties at school that consisted of warm cider and some pretzel rods, perhaps a few Tootsie Rolls thrown in for good measure after the obligatory parade-around-the-school. Some parents were scattered along the parade route with cameras and the very rare super 8. But for the most part, moms and dads were busy elsewhere, being grown-ups. Doing things adults did, like working or ironing.
Is there one defining moment when the world morphed into a scary place? A place where children were no longer permitted to roam without parental supervision on a holiday that had been theirs and theirs alone? We Baby Boomers have always been reluctant to give up anything that smells of fun, but Halloween in the 21st century goes beyond a selfish need to inhale every drop of festivity. The sad truth is the world has become a frightening place and not just on October 31. Our children are micromanaged because we are so fearful of what will happen if we take our eyes off of them for even a second.
So, in an effort to rewrite the holiday, we’ve over-involved ourselves with Halloween. We’ve inserted ourselves into what used to be the territory of youth. We’ve cobwebbed the front porch and created lavish classroom festivals so that our young ‘uns don’t know what they’re missing: the freedom of owning a very special holiday, the freedom of youth.