Times Past: Learning to embrace to foreign holiday known as Halloween

  • “For my fourth year of school, we had arrived in Greenfield. Halloween was a big holiday. We had a classroom party with food and games, but no costumes. The town sponsored a big Rag Shag parade for all the children to show off their costumes. That did not interest me, but this was the year I learned of a bizarre custom they called Trick-or-Treat,” recalls Janet Keyes in today’s memoir. METRO CREATIVE CONNECTION

  • Janet Keyes

Published: 10/20/2017 11:07:23 AM

Halloween has changed a great deal over the years. My early memories include times of carving a pumpkin with no hint of originality or imagination. We children had a lot of fun getting our hands stained pumpkin-orange as we scooped out the seeds in their slimy, shredded jackets. I was probably too young to be trusted with a knife to do any actual carving.

In my first year of school in a one-room schoolhouse in Guilford, Vt., there was little mention of Halloween. Possibly the true meaning of Halloween as All Hallows Eve would be difficult for the teacher to explain. Our subdued celebration included an art project or two, but no party.

The next day, we arrived at school to find our teacher agitated and annoyed because someone, “probably some of those boys from the Slate Rock School,” had used lots of toilet paper to decorate the small maple tree in front of our school. In a small town with no railroad, “Slate Rock district” was the rural equivalent of the “wrong side of the tracks.” Our teacher made no effort to conceal her utter contempt for the hoodlum vandals who desecrated our school with their misdeeds.

In mid-morning recess outside, my friend Bethli squealed, “Look, this is my dad’s jackknife on the ground right under the tree. I bet he’s the one who decorated the tree last night!”

Our teacher’s mood magically changed from sullen to incredulous to delightedly amused. Just then, the girl’s father came to the school to search for his watch and to “un-decorate” the tree. Our smiling teacher greeted him cordially and gave him his watch. They laughed together as he promised to remove all his handiwork from our tree.

Our teacher’s change of attitude was easily explained. The culprit was the world-famous concert pianist, Rudolph Serkin, who had bought a farm near the teacher’s home. Mrs. Q was pleased and flattered to have the Serkin children in her school, and she was tickled pink to think that Mr. Serkin had graced our school with his prank. Obviously, a trick played by a famous person was very different from the same trick done by anonymous thugs.

In my third year of school, I think we had a small party because we had a substitute teacher, but Halloween was not a greatly celebrated event.

For my fourth year of school, we had arrived in Greenfield. Halloween was a big holiday. We had a classroom party with food and games, but no costumes. The town sponsored a big Rag Shag parade for all the children to show off their costumes. That did not interest me, but this was the year I learned of a bizarre custom they called Trick-or-Treat.

We could knock on doors while holding a bag, and when people answered the door we could call, “trick or treat!”

If no candy was given, we could do a trick, like wrapping toilet paper on their shrubbery or throwing eggs at the house. My horrified father sternly announced that no children of his would be little beggars asking strangers for candy and making threats to damage anyone’s property.

We were allowed to hand out treats to all the many children who came to our door, and I enjoyed showing off our jack-o-lantern and seeing the costumes. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never experience the pleasures of begging or extortion.

When my own children were young, a few years later, they loved Halloween, especially making costumes. They would start planning for Halloween in August, about the time summer vacation was getting boring. I was not bored. I was busy making sure my children had back-to-school clothing, and I had little patience for costumes.

Finally, I established a firm rule: Make all the costumes you want, but do not ask me for any help before Oct. 1. This helped me keep my sanity.

Meanwhile, adults were getting more and more interested in Halloween. Even store clerks wore costumes. Our square dance club, the Trailtown Twirlers, celebrated Halloween with costumes, and many couples tried to conceal their identity. This was difficult for several reasons. Don Rooney, the shoe store owner, easily recognized everyone by the shoes.

One time, a man walked in wearing big rubber boots and was wrapped completely in toilet paper as a mummy. Never mind the shoes — we all knew him instantly by his walk. One year, when my husband and I wore a set of concealing costumes, Allan danced the entire evening while on roller skates. I don’t think anyone knew us until we took off our masks. Another time, we went to the Halloween dance as Ruth Buzzy and the Dirty Old Man. He would slide up to me and whisper in my ear, then I would beat him with my purse. People had a hard time guessing who we were, for some reason. What fun.

Halloween now brings back lots of entertaining memories, and All Hallows Eve seems hopelessly archaic.


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