It Was a Happy Halloween for Boomers

Now that another Halloween has come and gone, the differences between the trick or treating we did as boomer youngsters and the practices of today’s youth came into striking contrast for Mister Boomer this week.

Halloween for boomers was a fairly straightforward, simplistic affair. The very young were escorted door to door on Halloween night by one or both parents, while teens might either go to house parties or become the designated family candy distributors. The unwritten rule was, by the age of 13 or 14, your door to door trick or treating days were over. There were exceptions, as there are to every rule, but that is the way it usually transpired. There were the occasional adult costume parties on weekends before or after Halloween and some community costume contests, but not to the extent we see today.

Expenditures for Halloween have been growing exponentially in the U.S. The National Retail Federation reports that Americans spent nearly $7 billion on costumes for adults, children and pets, outdoor decorations, candy, indoor decorations and party supplies. Recent TV reports have indicated that the expansion of Halloween into what we celebrate today has been exported to other countries. Most notably, England now celebrates “American Halloween” in much the same way we do, with a special emphasis on costumes for adults.

Mister B has seen differences in four areas in a comparison of Halloween then and now, mainly, in house decorations, the times trick or treating takes place, costumes worn by kids and with the candy that is handed out.

The “holiday,” once a one-day, even one-evening event (two if you count Devil’s Night), now has been extended to a week or in many suburban locations, a month. People decorate their homes with multiple jack-o-lanterns that may be custom-carved, orange LED lights, cobwebs, animatronic figures, graveyard headstones, flying witches, accompanying spooky sounds and more. The vast majority of these items are store bought.

In our day if a home was decorated, chances are it was with homemade items. Kids’ art projects made of construction paper were often displayed on doors and windows, and a carved pumpkin — most often of the standard triangle eyes and nose, with the alternating toothy evil smile — sat in a window or on a porch. You wouldn’t see any decorations at all until at least the weekend before Halloween. Some people made frightening-looking scarecrows to sit in a chair on their porch, while others dressed up to look like a dummy, only to spring to life to scare a group of trick or treaters that approached. Others hung dummies in a noose from trees on their property or suspended witch dummies from branches. All in all, decorated homes were few and far between. By the next day, any outside decorations were gone.

Trick or treating times have changed. Now the very young — still accompanied by a parent — have finished their trick or treating before dark. Many families take their young ones to business districts (even driving there) to get treats from business owners in addition to neighborhood trick or treating. Pre-teens seem to start trick or treating the instant they get home from school. Costumes are often worn to school, so there is no lag time requiring a change when they arrive home, unless they have two costumes, which is a possibility. In Mister B’s current neighborhood, trick or treating is pretty much over by seven o’clock. Other areas may go on an hour or so longer.

In boomer times trick or treating didn’t start until after the family dinner time. In Mister Boomer’s area, that meant 6:00 or 6:30, at which point it was already dark. Mister B and his siblings quickly shoveled the food from their plates so they could get out. The time between arriving home after school and dinner time was spent on homework (if a teacher was unkind enough to assign some, which was not very often) or making final tweaks to a costume. The doorbell might ring a couple of times during dinner as early trick or treating began, but usually six o’clock marked the beginning. There were a lot of boomers out there of varying ages, so for most houses, a teen could stay home with one parent to pass out candy while a parent walked a younger one around. By the age of 7 or 8, we were walking around with other neighboring children or older siblings. Around eight o’clock, the crowds waned, with hardly a soul on the street by nine, except some teens and those bent on mischief.

While homemade costumes still exist, store-bought costumes by far outweigh the number of homemades. TV, movie and comic characters are popular, with zombies and vampires the current rage. Costumes are usually a head-to-toe proposition, with elaborate masks that can cover the entire head, or masks replaced by fancy makeup.

Store bought costumes existed in early boomer days, but they were rudimentary at best. Masks often consisted of a brittle, thin plastic faceplate with eyeholes that was held on the head by essentially a rubber band. Body pieces were often clunky one- or two-piece suits of thin, dark fabric, with whatever the costume theme was stenciled on the front, usually in white. So a skeleton costume could consist of a skull mask with bones silk-screened on the front of the suit. Perhaps that is why we made most of our costumes. It was also a fun activity that added to the excitement of the holiday.

Since most costumes were home made, they tended to fall into just a few categories. A white sheet (most sheets were plain white then) with eyeholes cut out could be an instant go-to costume. There were pirates and hobo costumes for boys, since both relied mainly on old clothes, while a sheet died black could serve as a Dracula cape with the addition of wax-candy fangs. Dyed red, it was a devil cape, with plastic horns worn on the head. There might be cowboys and Indians, or the occasional astronaut or fireman. Girls wanted to be princesses, ballet dancers or, with the right clothing available from their mothers, gypsies or witches, if mom made the hat.

To be sure, many of the brands we craved as boomer ghouls and goblins are still passed out today. Candy like Snickers, Baby Ruth, Payday, Chunky, Milky Way, Oh Henry, Butterfingers, Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops remain on the scene, though cheaper brands abound for their more-bang-for-the buck appeal to homeowners. Like boomer times, candy bars are the most sought after. Houses that passed out full-size bars were and probably remain the most prized.

Mister B recalls several other types of candy that are either rarely seen now, or have vanished. Zagnuts and Clark bars are fewer, as are Mary Janes and Smarties, though they all still exist. Mister B hasn’t seen Squirrels in years, nor Dum Dum suckers, though generic suckers are everywhere. It seems people no longer want to give out gum like Bazooka Bubble Gum, Chiclets, Juicyfruit or Fruit Stripe. Sugar Daddy, Kits, Charleston Chews, Bun, Bit-O-Honey, root beer barrels and a host of others appear to be gone, available only on nostalgia Web sites.

Mister B remembers the three items he didn’t want to see dropped into his bag: apples, pennies and popcorn balls. He could get apples anytime, and much preferred candy. Pennies could purchase candy, so why not just give out candy? And popcorn balls didn’t seem all that tasty to Mister B. They were usually homemade, and probably a quite inexpensive way to provide treats for the givers. Popcorn dipped in corn syrup, wrapped in (usually) red cellophane was all there was to it.

Yes, Halloween has changed in the past 50 years. Hopefully today’s kids will have the great memories boomers have of running house to house, their goal of filling a pillow case with treats an annual goal, if not an impossible feat.

Do you have a favorite Halloween memory — or candy — boomers?

One thought on “It Was a Happy Halloween for Boomers”

  1. The only decorations I remember were jack-o-lanterns carved out of real pumpkins. I don’t remember trick or treating past the fifth or possibly the sixth grade, I think i may have taken my sister trick or treating when i was in the sixth grade. These days teenagers go from house to house that would have been unheard of in my day. As far as candies, i hated the popcorn balls, they seemed stale. Some candies waned in popularity only to re-surface IE Mary Janes. And nobody gives out apples any more. (I did not like, they were heavy. The biggest change though, are the adult costumes. Our parents were so beaten up by the Depression, WWII and the ‘hard and bitter peace’ (JFK) that it seems to me that they couldn’t allow themselves to have real fun. (as opposed to us who sometimes can’t get serious.)

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