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  • Writer's pictureTodd DeGarmo

Trick or Treat!

"Trick or Treat!" we'd shout in unison, as our neighbor opened the door. We didn't expect to get–or give–a "trick". Halloween, for us, was all about the "treat". What a great holiday! It was the one night of the year where the usual rules could be bent. At this magical time, we were encouraged to dress up in crazy costumes, to run around after dark free of adult supervision, to collect candy from the neighbors. Free candy, enough to fill your brown paper grocery bag! Every fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade friend I knew in the last years of the 1960s ranked this holiday second only to Christmas.

Throwing eggs or making a mess of houses and yards with streams of toilet paper and shaving cream was the mischief–the "tricks" –of the older kids on Halloween. We preteens, however, were all about the costumes and candy, and generally, we knew where to avoid those "war zones", mostly contained to the streets in the center of our small village. That left the streets in the outer neighborhoods safe for us to maximize our hauls of candy.

The evening took a bit of planning. Homemade costumes were the norm. We became bums or clowns or cowboys with funny, old, oversized clothes, often stuffed with pillows. If it were a particularly cold night, or even with a trace of snow in the air, a sweatshirt or a coat would replace the pillows. We always disguised our faces. Burned wine bottle corks to blacken, and lipstick and other makeup from older sisters or moms for color. Sometimes, someone would buy a mask, but more often we'd use the beards from the church's Christmas pageant costume box, or cut eyeholes and a mouth in an old sheet. As you got a bit older, you might even cross-dress with a borrowed wig, dress, and stuffing for the right curves. This could be risky for a young guy, especially the year when an elderly neighbor remarked that this cute little "girl" didn't dress up as much as "her" friends, "did you dear?"

Our team for the evening had to be chosen with care. We'd want a half dozen or so kids close in age. Too young would slow you up. Too old would be bossy and try to take charge. The best groupings were those siblings and neighbors who would move as a group, but be individually self-reliant. We wanted to move quickly; that is, get in and get out with the candy, covering as many houses as we could to maximize our haul.

We loved the cover of darkness. It added to the thrill. Daylight Savings Time gave us an extra hour, creating twilight in the last minutes running up to five o'clock. The streetlights would blink on in our neighborhood, but for the dark edges, we always carried flashlights–especially for moving across lots and backyards to streamline our progress.

The neighbors put their lights on for the "trick-or-treaters"; it was very rare for a house to be dark, unwelcoming. Candy in wrappers was the norm, and large candy bars most desired, but some folks gave out homemade cookies or candied popcorn balls. Apples were a letdown, but the pennies given by some folks were welcomed, since a large Hershey's chocolate bar could still be bought for a nickel in the drug store downtown.

We tried to create a balance between letting the adults have their fun at guessing who we all were, and us getting the candy and moving on. The less chatter the better was our pre-agreed upon marching order. Sometimes, one of us had to reveal his identity, if the guessing went on too long–but always with smiles and politeness and lots of "thank you's". After all, in this small community, work would get back to your family if you were too pushy or ungrateful.

We were expected home before 9 pm (about the time when most houses began to turn off their lights anyway). Back on the living room floor, there was the obligatory sorting and assessing of your evening's haul of candy. Lining up the loot in order of preference: Hershey Bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, Milky Ways, Nestle Crunches, Tootsie Rolls. Small hard candies and lollipops were worth less unless they were Tootsie Roll Pops or Mary Janes, with their fudgy or peanut butter fillings. Of course, not everyone would rate their candies the same way in terms of preference, so the trading would begin, with the hopes of getting rid of your less desirable candy, and maximizing your favorites, especially the chocolate.

In my family, candy was not part of our regular diet. These were treats given out during the holidays, so for a kid with a sweet tooth, you could only expect store-bought chocolate at Easter and Halloween, and maybe a bit at Christmas (though, mostly in homemade cookies and fudge). Much to the distain of my siblings, I kept a stash of Halloween candy in some kind of locked box, so I could eat just a bit at a time to make sure it lasted during the long, dry spells. They called me a pack rat.

Nowadays on Halloween, we line the porch with candlelit, carved pumpkins and give out "good candy" to the few "trick-or-treaters" that come around. I try not to spend too much time guessing identities, but mostly they don't seem to be in a hurry and stroll around in the dark with their smiling parents. And once we turn off the lights, I still have a stash of "good candy" to nibble on in the weeks to come.

This story first appeared in the Editor's column of Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Fall-Winter 2015, Volume 41:3-4, and is used by permission from

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