Recently I read the average American spends about $88 on Halloween. In 2018 the U.S.A. is expected to spend a total of nearly $9 billion on the holiday; that total includes costumes, candy, decorations, cards, parties and attendance at holiday attractions. Statistics such as these cause my husband annually to shake his head and remark in disbelief with a twinge of nostalgia, “Remember when Halloween was a holiday only for kids?”
When I do my part to celebrate the autumn holidays by adorning our front porch with a few chrysanthemums in hues of amber and vermilion enhanced by a pumpkin or two, my husband will nod and smile, but that’s about as far as we take it with harvest-themed decorating. Around the corner, there are homes with elaborate twinkling lights of crimson and gold along with artificial cobwebs, witches’ cauldrons and a plastic ghost or two. To this my husband begins to describe his mother’s 1950s sensibility and belief that displays of Indian corn near one’s front door were better left to people in the suburbs. With roots in old Baltimore, my mother-in-law’s childhood was spent growing up near downtown’s elegant 1920’s Mount Vernon Place. Both she and my own mother believed that “less is more,” therefore, an artfully carved jack o’ lantern was about the extent of their Halloween décor.
As a baby boomer, I remember fondly the Halloweens of my childhood, and yes, the holiday was indeed for kids. In addition to my father’s annual carving of a pumpkin in our kitchen there were traditions that would most likely send today’s parents into states of panic. I have absolutely no recollection of a single friend with a peanut allergy; candy was tossed into random grocery store bags or pillowcases that served as trick-or-treat bags, and no doubt plenty of that candy contained peanuts. Handfuls of unwrapped candy corn, unwashed apples, even spare change were thrown in also. It was a kinder, gentler time, and no one would have dreamed of x-raying the contents of those bags.
As far as costumes were concerned, I was lucky because my mother could sew. I think my very favorite costume was my 2nd grade Sleeping Beauty pink gown, created from an inexpensive shower curtain purchased in the home department of Kresge’s five and dime store. How my mother ever turned that somewhat stiff polyethylene material into a princess’s magical gown remains a mystery to me. I do remember that I somehow made my own crown with a few imitation rhinestones and a stretchy 1961 hairband I borrowed from my aunt.
When all else failed, everyone’s go-to costume was the fortune teller. Just throw a silk scarf around your head, find a long skirt, toss on five or six long necklaces, and you were set. For the boys, it was always easy simply to dress up as a woman: grab one of your mother’s dresses and then stuff the top. (These easy-to-assemble costumes would most likely be considered offensive in 2018. Again, it was a very different age and national atmosphere.)
Even as we grew up, Halloween was still for the young, with pre-teens and even a few teenagers getting into the spirit of the holiday as the adults looked on from the sidelines. The last costume my mother sewed for me was in 8th grade when I attended a big Halloween Dance at a “teen center” dressed as a flapper. The dress was a simple turquoise-colored shift assembled from a McCall’s pattern. The highlight of the costume was black fringe added in horizontal rows on the front and back of the dress. I won first place for “best theme” for that costume. A friend of mine won “best overall” for her harem girl costume. (Would any teen center on the planet ever allow, let alone, reward harem girl anything today?)
As I made my way through Target recently, I saw aisle after aisle filled with as much Halloween merchandise for adults as for kids. Today’s millennials, who sustain the craft beer industry, find a plethora of October ales. Pumpkin spiced everything flies off the shelves. Nevertheless, to me every Oct. 31, I journey back to when the holiday was less complicated, less commercial and ultimately one of the few with children at its core.
Carolyn Buck (email@example.com) is a local writer and performing arts educator.