The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 28, 2005


Halloween as a value-added holiday
Halloween has often taken a real pasting for being a holiday that celebrates greed, Satanism, and the wholesale rotting of children's teeth. I think we have lost sight of Halloween as the valuable experience it can be. In a town whose annual Halloween tradition begins with the Great Pumpkin Spectacle, we have no excuse for that: I say, bring back great Halloweens!

Priscilla Stevens poses in 1961, as Jo March from Little Women.

I grew up in Melrose, a small city seven miles north of Boston. We had neighborhoods and sidewalks, and Halloween was second only to Christmas in importance to the neighborhood children. There were no store-bought costumes: parents were as keen as the kids, and families would plan and work on costumes for weeks. Many of the mothers were dab hands with a sewing machine, and my mother combined her extraordinary abilities there with her passion for costume creation and my almost absurd insistence on attention to detail. When I was in fifth grade, we had a class Halloween party at which we all had to appear as literary characters. I had to be Jo March, having devoured Little Women that year. My mother turned me into the perfect pantelletted, hoop-skirted tomboy character of the Civil War era, with 15 yards of skirt, a snood for my hair, and even buttons on my white gloves. My best friend Sue was dazzling as well in her mother's pink and beribboned interpretation of Elsie Dinsmore, from the book of the same name. We recycled those costumes on Halloween night.

Going out at night alone

Each year, we would map out our routes, and then travel the nearby streets in groups of about a half dozen. Like other kids, we filled pillowcases with candy that our parents tried to dole out to us slowly in the months that followed. Then, as now, there were precautions: we carried flashlights, avoided masks, and our parents would check the candy for anything that was homemade or unwrapped, so as to avoid sabotage.

The candy was fine, but the real thrill of it was the chance to go out at night alone, being somebody else, dashing from house to house and collecting the oohs and aaahs of the obliging people who admired our costumes. We knew there would be certain houses that would be bedecked in the spirit of the night and we didn't want to miss those. We would tiptoe up the walks, giggling nervously at the graves, skeletons, and other scary decorations on the lawns, fully expecting something to jump out at us before we reached the door. Sometimes something did, but it was all in good fun.

Every once in a while, we would return from the door of some house and see a tall man in a black mackintosh, with a black fedora pulled down low over his eyes, standing silently and motionlessly on a nearby street corner. He would give us the chills and we would dash on to our next destination. We would turn and look over our shoulders, and there he would be again. Just standing there. Every few blocks, we would check, and there he was. Surely, he was following us, so we moved fast. Some years he wasn't there, but there would be in his place a witch in a tall pointed hat with no visible face. She would appear and disappear as well, and keep us on edge throughout our whole night's journey. It was a long while before I learned that the man had been my father, watching out for us while my mother manned the door at home, and that the witch had been my mother, keeping an eye on us while my father stayed behind to give out candy. Boo Radley had nothing on my parents.

Those years instilled in me a love for role-playing, special effects, make-up, and costumes. They were thrilling and fun, and when my own children came along, I was determined to make Halloween an important holiday in our house.

Carving the pumpkins

We began our tradition with jack-o'-lantern carving. The kids would choose a pumpkin at a local farm stand, and then we had "carving night" with Dad. The kids would draw faces and decorations on their pumpkins, and then my husband Jon would cut the "hats" off the pumpkins. The next step was removing the seeds, which had to be done by hand so as to render the children as sticky and gooey as possible. That accomplished, the carving would begin. Jon would cut exactly according to the small chief surgeons' specifications, finish cleaning out the pumpkins, and place and light the candles. Finally the proud jack-o'-lantern designers would place their pumpkins on the stoop to light the trick-or-treaters to our door.

Cliff Stevens (aged two) in 1983, is ready for trick-or-treating as Henry VIII.

Costume planning began as early as August in our house. When the children were very small, I designed and made their costumes. When our son was two, he was a stocky, sturdy little fellow with blond-red hair. There were, I thought, only two choices here: Winston Churchill or Henry the Eighth. I opted for Henry, reasoning that it would be difficult to find a homburg hat in my son's size, and I didn't want him carrying a cigar around as Churchill did. I went to work transforming my little boy into a small version of the six-wived king. What I achieved was more like the Holbein portrait of Henry's son, Edward VI, as a young prince, but it was still effective.

Making the costumes

As the kids grew, we discouraged them from choosing "normal" costumes, and they obliged by coming up with some truly challenging ideas. Making the costumes became a family affair. My daughter was a banana, a Hershey bar, a record (before CDs). My son was a jukebox, a knight, a can of Raid. It is amazing what a little cardboard, an old ice cream container, cloth, and puffy fabric paint can accomplish.

Off to a party in 1987 are Jon and Priscilla Stevens as the soccer coach and the ball.

We were living in Chelmsford, which, like Carlisle, didn't have sidewalks, and we compensated for the dangers of walking the streets by throwing Halloween parties with all the fixings: apple bobbing, eating doughnuts on strings, touching icky things while blindfolded. The kids invited both neighbors and friends from other parts of town. Parents had to dress too, and Jon and I had a great time creating our own costumes: he was a killer bee, I was a black widow spider; we were a pair of Pilgrims; and one year, he was a soccer coach and I was the ball. These were great family times, and they allowed imaginative scope for everybody.

You don't need a neighborhood with sidewalks to make Halloween into a value-added experience: you just need a few materials and a sense of fun. Long live Halloween!

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito