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My youngest granddaughter has a bumblebee costume for Halloween, but she won’t do any trick-or-treating, at least not until she learns to walk. She’s typical of a whole generation of children whose parents delight in dressing them in weird and colorful costumes for the spooky holiday.
Many Halloween traditions can be traced back to observances for the festival of Samhain, a sort of Celtic New Year, which marked the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark. It was a night when spirits of the dead could cross back into this world, and some of them were nasty and frightening. The only protection against them was to wear a disguise that fooled the evil beings.
The huge influx of immigrants, particularly Irish refugees from the potato famine of the mid 19th century, brought with them traditions dating back to the Middle Ages, but Americans made the holiday their own in the early 20th century. Halloween postcards tell the story of celebrations that included ghosts, witches, black cats and leering jack-o’-lanterns, but the real fun came in dressing up. In the first decade of the 1900s, Halloween costumes were mostly worn by adults, and many parties were for grownups.
Real photo postcards show groups in costume, sometimes all alike or following a theme. But like all fads from blind-man’s bluff to whist, these costume parties gradually grew out of favor, but the fun of Halloween lived on with children. Trick-or-treating didn’t become a widespread way of celebrating Halloween until the 1930s, and manufactured costumes began appearing in stores in that decade.
Still, this was the time of the Great Depression, and homemade costumes were much more common. Old bed sheets were easy to turn into ghost costumes, and all a tramp needed was old clothing, a bundle on a stick and black shoe polish as makeup. An old black dress could be scaled down for a witch costume, and black construction paper made a satisfactory pointed hat.
Girls who were lucky enough to have a mother who sewed, and many did in the 1930s, could dress as Cinderella or a fairy godmother.
The Dennison Company even issued pamphlets giving directions for costumes using their crepe paper. (Not for wet weather or the snow that frequently made a Halloween appearance in the Midwest.) Whether children went for scary or pretty, homemade was the norm.
One church in our town has a Halloween event called “Trunk or Treat.” Children dress in their costumes and go to open car trunks in the parking lot. Undoubtedly, it’s a safe way for them to beg for candy, but it makes a person nostalgic for the scary fun of racing from house to house on a dark street, perhaps chased by older boys with mischief in mind. Our porch light will be on for trick-or-treating, and no doubt a parade of costumed children will arrive with pillowcases already bulging with candy. And hopefully, among the manufactured costumes, there will be some original creations like the bunch of grapes that one girl wore a few seasons ago.
All it took was purple balloons, a lot of air, and a good imagination. One thing is sure. There will be witches, ghosts, devils, vampires, skeletons, and even aliens on our doorstep.
Scary costumes are at the heart of Halloween fun today as they were on early postcards. ?
Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for more than 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working on her 50th book in partnership with her daughter. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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