The most popular non-holiday of the year.
Halloween has always been great fun for me. As a lad in a small, south Alabama town, my friends and I (all boys of a certain age) would go out into the night, dressed in something that resembled a costume to exhort candy from villagers who, despite our disguises, knew who we were.
And we knew them, knew which ones would give us good candy (chocolate) and which would give us the cheap stuff (candy corn left from last year) and which would give us nothing — if the porch light was not on, don’t bother to knock. Some gave us homemade cookies (no fear of poison in them) and some gave us oranges and apples.
Then we would go downtown and with cakes of soap write all over the merchants’ windows. (The next day, the merchants washed their windows with the free soap we provided.)
By the time I reached my teens, I had other things on my mind, so my Halloween cavorting was over — for a while.
And during that while, Halloween changed.
My first hint of this came in the early 1970s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Georgia. One of my professors had a daughter the same age as my daughter — 4 years old. He invited me to bring her over to his neighborhood, a faculty ghetto full of junior professors on their way up the academic ladder.
“And bring a glass,” he told me.
So it was that he and I and our costumed daughters went from door to door.
The girls shouted “trick or treat” and held out their sacks.
My professor shouted “trick or drink” and held out his glass.
That was when I realized Halloween was not just for kids anymore.
Over the years since that evening, I have watched Halloween become an adult occasion, and a bawdy one at that. Check out any of the catalogs that arrive announcing the holiday and you will find all sorts of costumes that range from sexy to scandalous.
Sadly, the folks who wear those outfits today — mostly women under 40 — were not wearing them when I was under 40 (or, at least were not wearing them around me), so I have never seen what a young mother looks like dressed up like a randy nurse or a raunchy Little Bo Peep.
(Churches that are all in a dither over what they perceive as satanic influences prevalent in Halloween — the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties” — would do well to spend less time worrying about toddlers dressed like witches and more time considering what the “long-leggedy beasties” dressed like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, are up to. Talk about “things that go bump in the night.” But I digress.)
Truth be told, I have not been to many Halloween parties. Since my buddy Brad’s birthday falls on the same date, his parties usually had a Halloween theme. Once I went as Groucho Marx, but that was when I had a moustache and a wife who could go as Harpo.
Like just about everything else, Halloween ain’t what it used to be.
Afraid to let the young wander about, churches do “trunk or treat” where children dressed in appropriate costumes wander the parking lot from car to car filling their little plastic pumpkins with enough candy to keep them on a sugar high for weeks.
I wonder what their Halloween memory will be — “the Dove bars we got from the back of that BMW?”
In some towns, kids target affluent areas in a ritual of giving and taking that is reminiscent of the “Christmas gift” tradition on plantations, when the Lord and Lady of the Manor handed out goodies to show their generosity to folks who happily exploited the situation.
Before I go off and get sociological on you, let me add that all this has made Halloween a cash cow for anyone who sells anything. Halloween spending recovered from the recession quicker than the other holiday — even Christmas — and in 2012 you folks spent a record $8 billion ($370 million on costumes alone).
However, no costume will ever have the impact of one I saw at a motel bar just off the interstate in rural Kentucky. I was on my way to a convention. It was Halloween. And as I ate supper in the adjacent restaurant, the bar filled up with local good-old boys and girls dressed for the occasion. Among them was 300 pounds of Bluegrass manhood dressed as a baby — wearing nothing but a bed-sheet diaper.
Halloween has never been the same.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is retired Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.