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Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Halloween Missive

I remember when I was a kid and couldn’t wait for Halloween.

We would wear our costumes to school, have little parades where each classroom would stroll around the playground and get cheered on by parents and teachers, who were also dressed head-to-toe in their costumes. There would be treats and parties, the principal and vice-principal would even get in on the gig.

After school, we’d all go home on the buses, grab a quick bite to eat and then head off with our flashlights and Jack-O’-Lantern buckets, going from house to house in the neighborhood. We’d be greeted with Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Smarties and the occasional popcorn ball.

We’d all enjoy going to Mr. France’s house, because that’s where the goods were. Not only did Mr. France decorate his tail off, complete with cobwebs, a graveyard and bats hanging from trees, but he made you work for the candy. And the harder you worked, the more (and better) candy you got.

Like every other house, when you knocked on Mr. France’s door, he’d give you a piece of candy. But that’s only the start. Each Halloween, Mr. France placed pieces of tape at different lengths from his door, all the way back to about 15 feet. After receiving your initial deposit, he’d direct the kids to the first piece of tape. The idea was simple: catch the candy he’d throw at you and move on to the next piece of tape. The further you went back, the better the candy. If you caught all the candy, you got a night’s worth of candy plus he’d give you $1.

Sounds easy, right? Try doing it in the dark with no light except for the small porch light that he dimmed each Halloween. It was a true test of how badly you wanted your candy. I never caught all the candy; made it close a couple times, but never reached Nirvana.

One of our neighbors was considered the unofficial “rest stop,” with parents who welcomed all the kids inside, offered some juice or hot chocolate. Usually had homemade popcorn balls, as well as candy. They asked all the kids to sign their Halloween “welcome” book, where you’d sign your name and write down what your costume was. They would point out to the older kids what they were when they came by at, oh, age 5. Truly embarrassing for some.

At the end of the night, you’d head home (or to your friend’s house) and divvy up your booty, making trades and bartering Mounds and Almond Joys like they were beaver pelts and deer skins. Candy took on more value than $100 chips at The Bellagio. I’ll trade you three bite-sized Baby Ruths for your full-size Whatchamacallit, you’d say, keenly aware the Whatchamaccallit was the most underrated candy in confectionary history.

The bartering would continue the next day in school. In school, you say? Of course, because we went trick-or-treating on school nights, since statistically it is more likely to have Halloween fall on such a day (I did the math: 71.4% likelihood).

Unfortunately, my daughter probably won’t be able to experience the same thrills. You see, a number of things have changed. For one, there wasn’t the stigma that an extra from Law & Order: SVU was hiding behind the bushes. Or in the home next door. We knew our neighbors; they were our friends.

People began putting bowls of candy outside their doors, not wanting to take the time to open their doors for the kids in the neighborhood. Inevitably, the older kids would dump the whole bowl in their bags and leave nothing for the younger kids. This led people to not even participate, which led to fewer houses for kids in traditional neighborhoods. This led to parents dropping their kids off at townhome complexes or malls or, the biggest crime of all, trunk-or-treat locales.

Then towns got worried about costumed groups of kids roaming the streets on weeknights, leading to designated trick-or-treat nights (usually Fridays or Saturdays). Which meant some people who had weekend plans didn’t participate. Or left big bowls of candy outside their doors, which led to the aforementioned problems.

Kids have also grown up too quickly, especially our girls. Remember when little Janie, Julie or Janet wanted to be princesses or fairies or some sort of animal? Today, those girls want such illuminating (and revealing) costumes as Go-Go Girl, Tavern Wench, Rag Darlin’ (which sort of looks like Raggedy Ann-meets-Tavern Wench) and the Britney Spears-inspired Mega Star. And who doesn’t want their child to emulate Britney?

Let’s not even get started on the whole healthy eating craze, which costs our children the joy of Roll-Os, Sweet Tarts and Hershey bars. Fig Newtons and apples? You should be ashamed.

It’s all too much. We want our children to have a childhood, but we want to protect them from the evils of the world. It’s a delicate balance. I’m no different. But I understand that this is a simple little holiday, meant to bring out the child in all of us and offer candy makers of the world their chance to make their annual profits on the backs on babes. It’s meant to provide kids one night to pretend they’re something else, to find enjoyment in imagination and be rewarded for their creative nature with treats that make even the oldest of us salivate.

But today’s world is much different, say the naysayers. There are dangers around every corner, behind every door. Nobody wants to give your something for nothing. Everyone has a motive. Everyone has a skeleton in their closet.

The only skeleton I remember was hanging from Mr. France’s tree. In plain view for everyone to see. Like his smile when he waved us goodbye, wishing us good travels and Jack-O’-Lanterns filled with treats.

James Moffat is a former journalist and the author of Growing Up Kaitlyn. He and his wife, Michelle, have been married for nearly four wonderful years (plus another two) and are the parents of 21-month-old Kaitlyn Riley. You can reach him at, or tweet him @jamesmoffat.

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