Halloween is a holiday whose significance for the masses escapes me. What’s with all the yards of make-believe cobwebs, gravestones, skeletons, ghosts and goblins? My neighbor has a five-foot skeleton standing outside his door as if to enter. It periodically tumbles and he has to prop it up again. My puzzlement about masquerading as somebody other than myself and going door to door begging for treats stems back to my childhood.
My parents were immigrants from Ukraine after a particularly difficult time during the Revolution and anarchy that followed. At the time, the poor people, sometimes including children, actually went door to door begging for food. The alternative was starving. In one hand they carried a stick to ward off dogs and, in the other, a gunny sack slung over the shoulder. Into it they tossed whatever a housewife could give. Therefore, Mother and Dad had no understanding of the strange custom of trick or treating at Halloween in their adopted land.
After we children were old enough to realize we were being shut out of a windfall of candy each fall, we pleaded to go out with our friends trick or treating, Mother’s answer was a firm “no” and Dad’s even firmer. Go out begging? Unthinkable. No child of the highly respected Jake Funk would beg for candy from his customers and friends. He would bring home candy from the store. We accepted the ultimatum for several years, though we were bug-eyed with jealousy when school friends came to the classroom the next morning burdened with candy kisses, gum, and apples, while we each cradled a few suckers in one palm.
One year, after first talking it over with Dad in the little upstairs bedroom, Mother agreed to let me go with my friend Mona for “a little while.” I found an old sheet, cut holes in it for eyes, and joined Mona and the other girls under the corner light post, a paper shopping bag under my arm. At last. I had made the break. I was one of the gang hollering ‘Trick or treat!” at door after door. Up one street and down another we went. We each collected a weighty bag of candy, gum, apples, and cookies. The butcher gave us each a wiener. The druggist handed out samples of toothpaste.
My “little while” was nearly used up when we knocked at a small white house, dimly lit, on a side street. I was shivering from the cold already and knew it was time to quit, but we wanted to finish off the last few houses before we went home to show off our loot to younger brothers and sisters.
I banged on the door of a small house with new-found bravado. I was doing it like the others, a real Canadian, shouting “Trick of treat!” We never soaped anyone’s windows if the people didn’t give us treats, but that was what the other children said, so I said it too. “Trick or treat!” we shouted as we waited for someone to answer our knock.
A graying, thinnish woman with deep lines in her forehead, dressed in a limp, gingham house dress, opened the door. Brusquely she said, “No treats here tonight …. a man is dying in here.” She swung the door shut in my face.
My feet refused to move. Dying? How often had she said those words that evening? A man was dying behind the wooden door of the house with the low porch and broken step. Was it her husband? Was he lying on the bed or sitting? What did people do when they knew they were dying? What did they talk about? What they might hand out for Halloween treats this year? Mona and I turned and went home, never saying a word.
I never went trick or treating again. And I lost my enthusiasm for the custom ever after. I didn’t need trick or treating, cobwebs, tombstones, or a skeleton at my door to remind me of my mortality. I carried my humanity with me daily.
[This story appeared in a slightly different form in my book The Storekeeper’s Daughter: A Memoir.]