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Columnist Susan Wozniak: Halloween best as a family affair

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

I grew up in a working-class suburb of Detroit, where Irish, Italian and Polish families dominated.

Our celebration of Halloween, however, seemed a throwback to the rag dances of England, for which adult singers and Morris dancers attached rags to their clothes and danced for food and spirits of the liquid kind.

How we spoke of Halloween betrayed an older origin. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the metropolitan Detroit area was alone in calling “begging” what others referred to as “trick or treating.” And only in Michigan did children yell: “Help the poor.”

My mother — and I suspect others as well — forbade us to call out “help the poor.” There seemed an even divide between it and what would become the standard “trick or treat.”

Most of the costumes were homemade, assembled by the kids from cast-off adult clothing. They mattered little, as we had to wear our winter jackets over them, which I found disappointing. For some reason, we did not have wool sweaters or long johns to wear under our costumes. Except for the very young, children tended to go out on their own.

I looked forward to making costumes for my own children (fully visible, with wool sweaters and long johns beneath them), although preparing for my daughter’s first trick-or-treat brought some surprising revelations.

A woman of my mother’s generation, watching her pick out material for her princess costume, told me I was fussing too much. All she did was put “makeup that went bad” on her kids’ faces, then sent “them out the door.” A few days later, a friend gave me the other side, which, like “trick or treat,” would become the standard. She told me about a wonderful older man, who each year donned green tights and a pumpkin costume his wife made, to lead the Halloween parade he founded.

During my daughter’s first pregnancy, she saw a photo of a baby wearing a knitted candy-corn costume. She confessed, “It’s so stinkin’ cute that I can’t stop looking at it.” The costume and the baby were adorable. About 6 months old, the baby was propped on a sofa, wearing a knitted sack of orange and yellow with a little white cap, grinning that gummy baby grin that melts the hearts of adults. I suspect even the corners of the mouth of the woman who smeared her kids with makeup that had gone bad would twitch upwards. At least a little.

When her own baby was ready for Halloween, my daughter disguised her as a candy corn in an orange and yellow fleece sack and a little white cap. My son-in-law was away on business that year, but, my daughter visited a few neighbors just to show them the baby while I handed out treats at her house.

Parents, sometimes costumed themselves, walked with their kids while accompanied by friends, relatives and neighbors. Decorations were beyond the simple construction paper cutouts my kids made. Houses were strung with lights, windows became the eyes of owls animated ghosts floated above yards.

It wasn’t until her third Halloween, when she was dressed as Dashi Dog, her favorite character from the children’s television show, “Octonauts,” that my granddaughter became aware of the holiday. The next day, she asked if she could go trick or treating again. Her mother explained that Halloween is just one night of the year. The next year, she selected her own costume for the first time. It was classic: a ghost.

During the spring, her parents who are nerds, discovered the Golden Book “Star Wars” series. My granddaughter immediately wanted to be Darth Vader for Halloween. Her mother said, “Well, at least she’ll be warm.” Over the summer, her aspirations changed a few times, until she settled on Rey, the heroine of the new “Star Wars” film, “The Force Awakens.” Mom bought her costume this year as the family had been joined by a little sister, leaving no time for costuming. Dad found a quarter staff, Rey’s weapon of choice, to complete her look.

As for little sister, she’ll be disguised as BB-8, Rey’s droid sidekick, a costume every bit as cute in its way as the candy-corn costume was.

I like Halloween as a family affair. I think back to the last Halloween that I went “begging,” costumed as a flapper. That was during the fad for sack dresses or shifts. All a girl had to do was borrow a dress from mom’s closet, tie a scarf around her forehead and draw circles of rouge, a la Betty Boop, on her cheeks. Every girl in my class dressed as a flapper.

But, I wonder if Halloween had been more participatory, if we knew how to sew and, most importantly, if Halloween were seen as a true holiday, what we  might have dressed as. I suspect I would have been Laura Ingalls Wilder or Anne Shirley of “Green Gables.”

Susan Wozniak, of Easthampton, is a retired journalist and writing professor who writes a monthly column. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.