By Pauline Kerr
As holidays go, Halloween seems tailor-made for COVID-19 times. Trick-or-treaters wear masks, and spend most of the time outside, in small groups.
Some kids went trick-or-treating last year in spite of the pandemic. Creativity reigned supreme when it came to handing out treats. Some people rigged up eavestroughing or something similar to deliver treats hands-free.
This year, there is less fear. That means more little ghosts, goblins, and at least one large bubble-wrap-and-plastic coronavirus, going door-to-door, chortling at the haul of candy.
Popular costumes this year include the usual grotesque zombies, but Squid Game coveralls and ski masks make for eminently practical costumes. Some big kids on their way to hockey practice will give in to temptation to throw on their jerseys to visit a few houses for candy.
A generation ago, trick-or-treaters dressed as princesses and cowboys would be given popcorn, cookies and apples. Every kid in the neighbourhood wanted to visit the house where the people gave out candy apples.
The “trick” part of trick-or-treating consisted of soaping windows or hanging garlands of toilet paper in the shrubbery.
A couple of generations before that, young people often attended Halloween parties where there would be games that included bobbing for apples. Their older siblings sometimes stayed out long after dark, playing pranks that these days would likely result in criminal charges – things like moving outhouses a few feet back in the hope someone would fall in. There was also the ever-popular tying a string of tin cans onto the bumper of a car or horse-drawn wagon. Old news clippings indicate a lamentable tendency towards arson, usually involving abandoned sheds or houses.
Dressing up and roaming the neighbourhood to play tricks on people who failed to provide treats has a long history that hearkens back to pre-Christian harvest festivals and sun worship.
In the days before central heating, electric lights and imported fresh fruit and vegetables, winter meant hunger, illness and death, personified in the scary costumes worn by those who celebrated what was to become our Halloween.
People set lanterns carved from turnips and other vegetables on their window sills as protection from the evil that lurked in the chill darkness. Young folk then, as now, poked fun at their own fears by playing tricks on people and accepting gifts of drink and food as they made their way through small clusters of huts huddling precariously in forest clearings.
It is unlikely the small band of new millennium Disney princesses, a couple of Jedi knights, the obligatory ghost, and an Egyptian mummy, are afraid of evil spirits that predate written history. But on Halloween, there is something about the rustling of fallen leaves, the wisps of mist in the air and the eerie call of an owl or a cat on the prowl, that awakens an ancient instinct to flee the mysteries that lurk in the darkness.
We greet the merry band with candy as they giggle “Trick or treat!” and remember our own days of going door-to-door, gathering as much candy as we could carry.
We would dare each other to go close to the neighbourhood haunted house – not the fundraiser put on by the local service club, but the real one set back from other houses, surrounded by a tangle of bare branches and an ornate old gate. There would be whispers in the dark as stories were told about the child who knocked on the door and was never seen again.
A surprising number of Halloween trick-or-treat expeditions ended with one or more children bursting through the door, eyes wide with terror, at something they saw, or thought they saw. A surprising number of Halloween flashlights remained on under the covers after little trick-or-treaters finally agreed to go to bed.
The thought of ancient spirits still roaming the streets, accompanying little Darth Vader and a matched set of Sponge Bobs, is weirdly reassuring. The natural world still holds enough magic and mystery to fascinate, and occasionally scare the living daylights out of modern kids. Happy haunting!