It’s become something of a cliché to hear members of my generation go on about how much Halloween has changed since we were kids. The main difference, we always seem to say, is how much freedom we were allowed on that one night of the year when mischief-making and self-disguise were not only approved but actually encouraged.
In my childhood Halloween lasted all day, beginning with a costumed parade from our elementary school down the neighborhood streets. Our mothers – almost all of whom were homemakers, and therefore at home every day – sat on their porches, applauding as we streamed by. My mother was in show business in her youth, and she devoted all of her costuming skills into my yearly Halloween outfits. One year she outdid herself by dressing me up as The Solar System – with my face as the sun and several planets held in orbit around me by wire coat hangers. It was very impressive, if somewhat impractical to go around trick or treating in.
The climax of the holiday was, of course, Halloween night, when we were allowed to roam the dark streets unchaperoned with our friends until the agreed-upon curfew hour. Now we look back on such freedoms with nostalgia and talk patronizingly of the reduced and sanitized holiday that passes for Halloween today: children being chauffeured by their parents to the homes of their friends, often miles away, or else to structured Halloween events held in such secure public places as police and fire stations – or even worse, older teenagers showing up uncostumed, demanding candy, as if it were their inalienable right. We sigh sympathetically, enjoying our warm memories of risky freedom and extravagant creativity. At the same time we acknowledge that the world and society have changed in ways that make such unsupervised behavior too dangerous and such creativity too time-consuming.
But nostalgia, as I recently learned, can often prematurely dismiss the qualities we cherish in our memories. Last year over the holiday weekend I visited my daughter Katy’s family in Portland, Maine. For my granddaughter Coco, who was then six, Katy had created an ornate costume of Medusa, the Greek mythological figure with a head of living snakes. Coco was still too young to go out by herself, so we squired her around on foot with a friend. As we did I had a sense of deja vu as bands of elaborately costumed older kids roamed unsupervised through the neighborhood.
I was also struck by the elaborate inventiveness of many of the lawn displays, but none more so than the figure of a scarecrow, holding a pitchfork and sitting on the front lawn on a bale of hay. As one of the bands of holiday brigands approached the front door, the lifeless scarecrow suddenly stood up, howled, and brandished its pitchfork in a threatening manner. My daughter told me that the stuffed scarecrow figure had been placed on the lawn a couple of weeks ago, so that all of the kids in the neighborhood had gotten used to it. What had happened was that on Halloween afternoon, before the kids got out of school, the owner of the house, dressed identically as the scarecrow, had removed and replaced the stuffed scarecrow with himself and had then sat motionless, for at least two hours, just in order to surprise the children.
What a wonderful, extravagant gesture! I thought. Here was someone who not only had not forgotten the excitement and creativity of his own childhood Halloweens, but was dedicated to passing on such indelible memories to the next – and the next – generation.