All Hallows Eve

When graduates of Princeton see the color combination of orange and black, they may be reminded of the Princeton Tigers; other fans (especially Marylanders) instantly visualize the Orioles. But I always associate orange and black with Halloween, one of my favorite holidays as a child. I still think, Jack-o’-lanterns, candy corn, and cornstalks.” I used to get shivers up my spine, just recalling the Halloween party one of my classmates hosted the previous year.

It must have been an easy party for a parent to plan. There were time-honored rituals we expected. Bobbing for apples was one. Another was when an adult turned off the lights. We listened with goosebumps rising on our skin while the person read aloud a certain ghost story. Unseen objects were passed around the guests. They represented gruesome parts of the story such as an unpeeled grape for an eyeball and wet spaghetti for brains. We always squealed when we handled them, even though we knew what they really were. It was just part of the Halloween ritual.

One year the hostess treated us to a novel game—a punch board covered with holes that contained tiny rolled up slips of paper that had to be punched out with a stylus. Each slip gave directions for a stunt or a trick to be performed by the unlucky person who got stuck with it. Most of the ideas were silly and meant to make everyone laugh. Sometimes, though, the stunt was not so funny—at least to the person who got stuck with it. I began biting my nails before it was my turn, fearing that I might select one of those tricks.

Refreshments always were gingerbread and cider with a sprinkling of candy corn or Halloween candy in familiar shapes—pumpkins, black cats, yellow crescent moons, and chocolate-flavored witches’ peaked hats. In those times I could hardly wait until each autumn when my father brought home a jug of the first-of-the-season, locally made cider. It tasted faintly of the interior of an oak barrel and an elusive flavor that epitomized my favorite season when in southwestern Missouri early morning fog hovered just above the frost-coated pastures and bonfire smoke from burning leaves scented the air.

However, an essential present-day Halloween custom that didn’t exist, at least in Springfield, Missouri, during the 1930s and ‘40s, was trick or treating. Playing tricks like soaping car windows or decorating bare trees with toilet paper were common mischief-making fun of the night of Oct. 31. But I never had the nerve to throw raw eggs on someone’s outdoor property. That was especially against my parents’ rules because it was so hard to remove. Each year presumably older teens made headlines in the news the following day when they played an especially outrageous trick the night before. I seem to remember the year when a goat ended up in the steeple of a college chapel.

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I never heard of “El Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) until I began vacationing in New Mexico. Once I entered a gift shop in Los Ranchos de Taos and was baffled by shelves full of miniature skulls and skeletons dressed in all kinds of costumes like ballet tutus, cowboy outfits and policemen’s uniforms—in a sense, mocking the Halloween costumes we used to wear. I learned that Mexico celebrates a three-day official holiday from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, honoring the deceased in each family. Skulls made of sugar and costumed skeletons are decorations. Many families visit their plots in cemeteries and have picnics on their relatives’ graves. These customs may seem bizarre to those of us who have different ways to celebrate Halloween, but one explanation I heard was that the plethora of skulls and skeletons during this holiday make fun of death.

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“Remember, remember, the fifth of November” … begins an old British folk verse that refers to Guy Fawkes Day and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes was discovered with several barrels of gunpowder in the cellars, preparing to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He and others involved in the plot inevitably suffered the horrific punishments for traitors during those times. Over the years since then a ritual developed that reminds me of Halloween, especially since it falls so close to Oct. 31. Children stuff newspapers in old clothes to resemble Guy Fawkes, parade through the streets, calling out to passersby to give them “a penny for the guy.” They build a bonfire, toss the dummy onto it and dance around the fire. With the money the children have collected they buy fireworks to finalize the celebration.