by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
October 27, 2009
TIMID, PASSIVE REPORTERS PRODUCE TIMID, PASSIVE JOURNALISM
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- On Thanksgiving, we begged. On Hallowe'en, we bobbed - for apples, that is. That was how it all began and from that time until now, traditions and meanings have changed.
An article in The New York Times, November 20, 1922, reported that Police Headquarters ruled there must be no begging by children or grown-ups on Thanksgiving. The city regulation against soliciting alms that year would be enforced to the letter. In his benevolence he agreed they could dress up, both children and grownups alike.
Perhaps the seemingly harmless tradition had gotten out of hand in 1922 but by the mid thirties it was the very best day until Christmas and no one said not to beg.
Born in 1931, I can remember the begging part in the 1930s, so either that ban was lifted or we didn't pay attention to it. When I was about seven or eight, we used to go begging. It was tradition. We would dress in hand-me-down clothes, looking as pitiable as possible in our torn and tattered clothes, pursing our lips to look all the more winsome and forlorn, and hold out our little cupped hands, pleading mournfully as we did, and ask: "Anything for Thanksgiving, Missus?"
I don't recall going door to door but we did approach people getting off the bus at the corner. I remember the smiles and the pennies and, in retrospect, I believe it was a way for mothers to get the children out from underfoot while the very big family dinner was prepared.
The New York Times article wasn't on the front page but it was meant to carry serious weight. I don't think his threat worked. No one ever warned us, "If you see a policeman, run!" This was Thanksgiving in New York City and the begging was something closer to England and Ireland as tradition.
The idea of dressing up in what would be a costume of sorts was not done back then on Hallowe'en. As a schoolgirl we had Hallowe'en traditions that were fun. On the schoolyard at recess or on the empty corner lots after school, we would play an accelerated game of tag. However, instead of just being tagged, everyone ran helter-skelter with chalk in their hand, and when they caught up with you their shout of "Hallowe'en" would follow the streak of chalk pressed into the wool or corduroy of your jacket.
By dinnertime, when the games ended, you'd get home, weary but joyful, and you'd face a stern Mom or Dad. "Turn around, let's see the coat." They knew a good stiff brushing would clear the embedded chalk but it wasn't easy. By 1944 there were always a few boys who had colored chalk and our coats never looked the same again - especially if we were wearing the latest fashion: a regulation Navy pea coat from the Army & Navy Store.
Hallowe'en always meant someone would have a party and we'd bob for apples - something I hated but some apples had quarters pressed into them. We spent the fun-filled evening hour laughing until we finally donned our chalk-marked coats and left with ghost stories in our heads as we ran around darkened corners to our homes, staring at shadows over our shoulders until we were behind our own closed doors.
It appears that somehow Thanksgiving merged it's begging for pennies into Hallowe'en's begging for candy, and the deviltry of Devil's Night fell by the wayside. "Trick or treat" began in earnest in the 1960s. The treats began but tricks were rare - an egg against a car in the driveway, toilet paper adorning the trees at the homes of 6th grade teachers were really about as bad as it got.
All of this came to mind when a 20-something person recently expressed sadness to think I must have had a boring Hallowe'en without running house to house with a plastic pumpkin full of candy. And on Thanksgiving, no Macy's Day Parade. But we did have the parade, I protested - not as today but sitting atop Dad's car and watching it go by. We may not have had the miracle of the yet-to-come television set where we could see it at home as it was televised around the world, but we certainly had the parade.
Those of us of a certain age recall what it was like and wonder now why it didn't stay the way it was. We did have fun and it was all out of tradition. If you listen closely when you're at K-Mart or Target you'll hear someone say, "It's so commercial." That just might be me. Pumpkins adorned the shelves in August this year. Dad is spared what was the thrill of carving the eyes and crooked teeth on pumpkin Jack. It would probably be the best time of the year for him just enjoying family fun at home.
Although Hallowe'en as it has become now is almost orchestrated in its pre-planning, it's supposed to be for the good of us all. Townships state which date is for the trick-or-treating to take place, what time it begins, when it's over, houses with porch lights on only and more. Children in any foreseeable time will not let it go. It works for them and it is their holiday.
Obviously, it has changed and the changes began in the late 1960s. Malevolence came upon the scene as over 100 cases of poisoned candy or razor blades in apples were given out on Hallowe'en. For a few years we had to examine every stash of treats that came home with the kids. Since I had quite a few children, it became a chore - worth doing, of course, but tedious.
In 1968, the New Jersey legislature passed a law mandating a prison sentence for anyone who would booby-trap an apple. That was made law because 13 apples were found to have razor blades in them.
Nearly all claims proved to be hoaxes. But, according to www.snopes.com, who investigated the claim: "Pins, needles, and razor blades have been found in trick-or-treaters' loot," and reported the status as true.
Around the same time, good news came out of trick-or-treating. High school students started going door to door about an hour after all trick-or-treaters were at home counting their Hershey Bars. "Trick or Treating for UNICEF," these young adults would say as they collected money or pledges. The effort is now part of a larger plan to collect both money and food, with local organizations at the ready for distribution.
Part of the commercialization of the holiday came about when parents planned to keep their children home, meaning "safe" from the mean old people who wanted to do them in. Stores in shopping malls would offer candy to any costumed goblins walking through. It appeared to be a goodwill gesture but in fact they thought the kid would come in for candy and the parent would shop. That didn't work for the managers. Once the costumed wonder adjusted his mask, stashed his loot, he'd be out the door of the toy store and into the Gap before racing through the food court to Hallmark for more candy. There is no shopping done on Hallowe'en, even if billions are spent to prepare for it.
About the time of costumed parades from store to store, a ban came down that any festivities at public schools would be prohibited. There would be no decorating for Hallowe'en - as Hallowe'en. Compromises were made in some school districts that allowed for a "Fall Festival," with decorations in place and treats brought in by class parents to allow children to have the pleasure of dressing up. There would be no witches, warlocks, skeletons, spiders, black cat cutouts and other symbols of what is considered originally to have been a Pagan Holiday. Yet, it was still a happy day for the young children.
In my opinion, Hallowe'en is a harmless holiday, observed - or not - by the family, and doesn't belong anywhere on the public school calendar. In today's society I'll acknowledge school as the place more likely to find best friends than in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, the traditions have grown out of family life and been lived out in the darkening streets close to home. Thus, the costumes - neighbors won't know who's under the mask. With all the changes over the past 70 years, there is one chant that brings joyful giggles from any six-year-old goblin in the family: "Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat," and a smile from us as we all remember.