You've got to be my age or older, and you have to have been born in a small town to know the phenomenon I'm talking about it, but it went like this. Young, unmarried males would get themselves decked out in dark clothes, wander around town in gangs, and pull all kinds of pranks. When I was a boy, we'd wake up in the morning to find all sorts of junk out in the streets--even farm implements, far from home.
Once upon a time--if I remember the stories--outhouses would be tipped or else moved artfully, so that who ordinarily used them would suddenly find themselves in an unfriendly morass when they went out to attend what had to be attended to. The myth I remember best is of the cagey homeowner who expected to get so pranked. He got ahead of the game and moved his outhouse aside before the bedlam began, so that the pranksters suddenly found themselves knee deep in horror.
Teachers often caught it somehow, their houses egged or tomato-ed. I remember soaping windows, lots of them--houses and cars. Later, come daylight, toilet paper streamers waved lazily from front-yard trees.
The whole madness could get out of control--fires set hither and yon, and all kinds of junk hauled out into the streets. When I was a kid, we'd "can cars," a hilarious little prank created by garbage can covers tied to fishing line strung across town streets. Some driver would snag the line and haul banging covers around he realized he was the one making all the blasted noise.
When I was kid--both in small-town Wisconsin, as well as here in Iowa--roaming gangs would do what they could to upset ordinary life on Halloween, some of it in fun, some not. It was all part of the evening, a ritual night of upside-down madness, good boys turned deliquent, as if on that night all bets were off, madness reigned.
There were trick-or-treaters, too, of course, but they were well off the streets by the time the bedlam began.
Today, sweet little costumed kids with mom and dad go out at dusk and still say "trick or treat," even though the first half of that equation is hardly even public record anymore. No one gets their windows soaped, their garbage dumped. Maybe the last vestige of all true Halloween madness was smashed pumpkins; it wasn't that long ago that, come November 1, the streets would still be a mess of pumpkin seeds and chunks, jack-o-lanters no longer smiling from front porches.
Halloween has been forever domesticated, which is good, I'm sure, from the town fathers' point of view, even though, years ago, those very town fathers were the guys skulking around in black. The old Halloween, delightfully sinful, is gone and won't return. Today, the night belongs to goofy, store-bought costumes and a thousand bags of miniature Snickers.
Here where I live, some church group runs a huge program that gathers kids in from all over and rewards them with candy for not participating in a celebration that, once upon time, at least according to some, was thought to be demonic.
Today we're sanitized, the righteous will say; but I for one can't help being a little wistful.
Once upon a time on October 31, we had a ritual, a kind of "carnival" or maybe Fat Tuesday, a night of mad lawlessness, of pranks and punishments, of dirty tricks, some of them dirty rotten tricks. All bets were off, and the law and the church--the authority in a community like this--were equally powerless. But then, once again, come morning, righteousness once held sway.
Maybe the bedlam of Old Halloween could only have existed only in the grip of a powerful church ethos. Today, when the church has far less power and authority, there's no reason for a prescribed night of naughtiness. Old Halloween has disappeared because there's no reason anymore to rebel.
Maybe. Who knows? Just a thought.
Once upon a time, Halloween was a night for tipped outhouses, eggs and tomatoes, smashed pumpkins, and a few lumbering harvest implements dragged mysteriously into the middle of the street downtown.
Today, it belongs to Wal-Mart.
Yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.