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Trick or Treat: A Sweet History

Contact Author Alexis Palmer Karl
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I recall my childhood Halloweens well- the purple twilight streets of our suburban, Philadelphia neighborhood, my father, decked in his black opera coat and grandfather’s top hat holding an antique, candle-lit lantern a few steps behind my older brother and I. The blue glass-light was a constant beacon as we ran ahead onto neighbor’s lawns, hands excitedly ringing doorbells, already sticky with candies secreted from our stash, as we cried out, “Trick or Treat!” that cannon, offering promises of endless sweets. “Come on! Come on!” my brother would urge me, grabbing my hand and running door to door, the neighborhood kids following on our heels.

Again and again, Mars Bars, Hershey Bites, Twizzlers, Whoppers, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, 100,000.00 bars, Zapoos, Neccos, Pop Rocks and packets of Candy Corns would pour like rain into our Halloween sack-pillowcases, the ubiquitous plastic pumpkins simply too small for our impressive bounty.

I still smell the dirt dust of dried leaves crunching underfoot, the powdery violet of makeup, the plastic and rubber scent of ghoulish masks, the perfumed silks of my mother’s old dresses, cleverly reimagined into characters; a Queen, a Columbine, and my favorite: a witch. We were many in that neighborhood- hordes of sheet-ghosts, green masked zombies, caped and fanged vampires in a world illuminated with carved pumpkins and glowsticks bobbing in our hands.

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Once home, make up running, masks askew, more than one costume in disarray, my brother and I, with our closest neighbors, would run to our den, where we would dump all of our candy in a massive pile on the floor. The next few hours were filled with political negotiations, strategy, subterfuge, pleading and at time tears, as we negotiated the saccharine booty in heated debates, and one by one refilled our bags with our favorites. I would do anything, say anything and even resort to stealing when it came to Whoppers and Charleston Chews, the marshmallow -vanilla filling of the latter covered in just the right amount of waxy chocolate. We happily handed over any Necco Wafers, with their dull fruit powder-flavor, and Everlasting Gob-stoppers - simply too much work, to our friend who, to our horror, did not like chocolate. He ended up with all of our Candy Corns, Red Hots and Dots, those colorful buttons that lined long paper sheets like pop art paintings. We all fought over the sparkling and colorful Pixi Stick straws and Fun Dip packets, sour cherry apple and grape sugar powder dusting the edible, vanilla wand to sweet perfection.

It is truly the candy that catapults me into these memories; candy marking the years of each Halloween with new concoctions and new packaging. Razzles gave way to Nerds in my tweens. Skittles replaced Starbursts in my heart, and Now and Laters fell and stayed at the bottom of my Halloween sac with the introduction of Sour Patch Kids, which drove us all wild. I held fast to the rare gifting of any Ring Pops that came my way, and retained a steadfast adoration for Whatchamacallits, whose crispy peanut-buttery toffee-caramel center was covered in milk chocolate, and this too, a rare find in the Halloween bag.

Trick or treating did not really take hold until the 1940’s in America, and at that time, children bedecked in haunting costumes were likely to be handed homemade treats such as little cakes, or even coins, apple and nuts. It was not until the 1970’s, that trick or treaters could expect their pumpkins to be filled with colorful wrapped candies, many designed in smaller bite sizes for the occasion. My mother, a chef and chocolatier, reluctantly followed suit, and filled massive serving bowls with packaged candy for the crowds of eager trick or treaters ringing our doorbell. She saved her extraordinary brightly red colored candied and caramel dipped apples for just a few of our friends and neighbors, the iridescent cellophane wrappers and streaming ribbons, immediately made into bows and set in our hair or around our wrists, as we set to devouring this more elegant candy creation.

Spirits and Sweets

Halloween finds its ancient Celtic origins in the fire festival of Samhain. Samhain, celebrated on Oct 31, and lasting three nights, is halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, and heralded in the dark half of the yeara. Associated with the increasingly failing winter light, and a celebration of the autumnal harvest, Samhain was a time when the veil between the realm of spirits and that of the living, thinned. The festival was held on the night ghosts were said to appear to the living, and the living would wander and become lost in other worlds. Time and space was permeable, changeable, and dangerous. Food was set aside to appease unsettled ancestors, animals sacrificed, and a sun-shaped, large spinning fire wheel manned by Druid priests was burned to illuminate the dark nights; flames of which were gathered by festival goers and brought back to their hearths.b

 

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