Volume XI, Issue 44 ~ October 30 - November 5, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

From Treats to Tricks:
Halloween in the Old Century

The Gobble-unf’ll git you if you don’t watch out.
— James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1915): Little Orphan Annie

Back in the days of the Great Depression before the Burton siblings were old enough to go trick-or-treating, our mother Mildred would read Little Orphan Annie to us — and that was the extent of our participation in Halloween.

Perhaps it’s fitting to clarify one thing before we go any further. In the New England countryside there was no trick-or-treating as we know it today. Most staid, no-nonsense New Englanders were much more conservative in their observance of Halloween than were, say, Marylanders.

To bang on the door of a neighbor and threaten tricks if treats were not dished out would have brought a whipping — even from Mildred Burton, who never hesitated to indulge in fun ’n frolic with her children on special occasions.

In the rural areas — and to a great extent in the villages and the cities — one didn’t dare threaten tricks if candy or sweets weren’t passed out. That was considered begging, and during the Great Depression begging was a dirty word.

So in the Burton household, our first observances of Halloween involved Mother reading the long verse Little Orphan Annie to us, which was fitting seeing that within its lines there were goblins galore. For those born after the Depression, allow me to explain that Riley’s Little Orphan Annie was the original, years before the comic strip of the same name (and presumably based on Riley’s orphaned urchin) appeared in newspapers.

As my younger sister Ruth and I got a bit older, a little more was added to our Halloweens. The wash tub was scrubbed and filled with cold water drawn in a bucket from the well. Then perhaps a half dozen apples were added, and we’d join in the challenge of dunking for the fruit.

What was Halloween without dunking for apples? It’s pretty much forgotten in these times, but to try and claim an apple by mouth with hands behind the back was then the centerpiece of Halloween activities. The kids who succeeded were awarded a piece of penny candy or the apple itself — but we were country kids, and apples were one of the free things, always available.

So when money — even pennies — was scarce, Mother somehow saw to it that there was one piece of candy available for all the siblings old enough to snatch an apple by mouth. Those too young to gain an apple were allowed to use their hands. So in the end they, too, had their store-bought sweets.

That was the family’s version of Halloween, and then it was off to bed, the taste of the candy still in our mouths — and maybe also that of a glass of Kool-Aid, a package of which made enough of the sweet fruity drink to provide a glass for all the kids.

Long Ago and Far Away
In the cities, things were probably more exciting for our counterparts, especially the progeny of immigrants. It was those from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England who brought the Halloween holiday to this country in the mid to late 1800s. To them, the holiday was big. It went back to the Druids, who wore costumes, not infrequently involving real animal heads and skins, and fired up a big sacred bonfire to drive evil spirits away.

In this country of ours, a new twist developed via the immigrants that perhaps is the basis of our dishing out treats today. Upon promising that on All Saints Day, November 1, they would pray for the dead relatives of those of better circumstances, the poor would be given food on the eve of that holiday, which of course was Halloween.

So what has developed? Get this: An occasion that the Welsh celebrated simultaneously as the harvest of the farmers and the beginning of winter has become the second biggest commercial holiday, presumably behind only Valentine’s Day. It generates $6.9 billion in sales nationwide. A not-insignificant slice of that big pie, I dare say, represents satisfying the demands of those who ring doorbells with that old familiar cry “tricks or treats.”

Treats and Tricks
Though sister Ruth and I dared not issue such an ultimatum, at probably 10 or 11 when allowed out of the house on the big night, we’d color our faces with burnt cork and/or rouge (masks costing a nickel in the village store were out of the question) and drape a pillow case over our bodies. Then we’d visit a few neighbors contacted previously by Mother. We’d be offered a cookie or a piece of homemade fudge and fresh apple cider or Kool-Aid to wash it down. We had come into Halloween big time — though we never carried a sack to save any goodies for home consumption following Halloween. That would be begging.

A few years later, things got mischievous by our standards. The only trick we were allowed was to stuff a mailbox, and that was done with leaves, stones and twigs — debris the owners could easily remove on the morrow before Walt Sprague, our mailman, made his rounds. I must admit that usually the victims of our mailbox stuffing were the very same folks who had earlier invited us into their homes for homemade goodies.

But there was logic involved. We feared not only the wrath of Mother if a neighbor complained of our mailbox prank. There was an elderly relocated couple nearby who weren’t in the spirit of the holiday, and they sternly warned us as Halloween approached that putting anything in a mailbox other than mail was against the law of the U.S. government. Ruth and I didn’t want our pictures on post office walls alongside those of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson or Machine Gun Kelly.

As we approached our teens, Ruth and I separated on Halloween night, she to join girlfriends, and me to head out with a few boys — but only after Mother laid down the rules. No damages of any kind to any property; nothing more than stuffing mailboxes. She certainly didn’t condone that, but there were hints in late October that if automobile windows were to be “inscribed,” soap was the only acceptable writing instrument. Wax from a candle was too difficult to remove.

Basically, we stayed within those perimeters, knowing full well that violations would mean staying home and dunking apples with our younger siblings in Halloweens to come. It was with awe and envy that in school the next day, we’d hear the older boys talk of stuffing a potato into the muffler of a Model T, relocating an outhouse, letting air out of tires or — both heaven and Uncle Sam forbid — lighting a cherry bomb in a mailbox.

Alas, by the time I reached the terrible ’teens, old enough to think about hiking to the village and join the more prank-savvy boys, the world had changed. Things were more somber, World War II had erupted in Europe, and everyone knew we would eventually be in it. Pranks more serious than stuffing mailboxes were frowned upon. People who had jobs in defense plants had no time to pump up tires or remove wax from windshields before heading to work in the early morning; or after work, to return outbuildings to their original sites. It would be unpatriotic.

Jobs meant more money, and we could afford masks; those of Hitler were among the most popular. Not by coincidence. In not too many years thereafter, we’d understand better what a culprit Adolf was, but at the time we had our own reasons. He was the Grinch who stole Halloween.

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Last updated October 30, 2003 @ 1:57am