Most adults remember a time when Halloween was a kids’ holiday. There were school carnivals with cake walks, and several evenings of trick or treating. Back then, kids traveled after dark with older kids in charge. They stopped at houses where they knew the people who would play along trying to guess which costumed character was who.
It was the days of Leave It to Beaver. Neighbors were engaged with one another. Adults knew most kids by name.
Clever mothers tried to out-do one another creating costumes for Wizard of Oz characters, robots, giant pieces of candy, ghosts, witches and princesses. One girl, in my school dressed as a pack of Lucky Strikes. No one became upset or preachy. It was all in good fun.
Halloween parties at school or church or the neighborhood were for kids who bobbed for apples and played ring toss.
Then, as adults discovered Halloween in the 1970s and 80s, the holiday descended into creepiness with graphic yard displays, risqué costumes and adults-only parties. Claims of tainted treats prompted hospitals to offer free x-rays of candy. Parents refused to let their children trick-or-treat without supervision.
Two years ago Cousin Gary from Los Angeles came to visit during Halloween. His two kids, aged five and six were wanting to trick or treat, something they had never done in Southern California. I suggested the Trunk of Treat at my church—First Presbyterian in Newton—and check out the candy scene in the surrounding neighborhood.
The hour we spent at the church and later on Sixth and Seventh Streets was like a step back to my own childhood. The bungalows and colonial-style homes had their jack-o-lanterns and porches lit, some of the residents dressed up to hand out the treats and the kids squealed with delight.
“We can’t do this at home,” Gary told us. And it’s true, most urban places are too dangerous to consider allowing kids to trick or treat door to door. Even though my cousin lives a half hour from Main Street, USA in Disneyland—that prefabricated stretch of 1900s lanterns and storefronts billed as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
I point this out not to say the residents of Newton are an easy mark for out-of-towners or that they are obligated to gift candy to the whole town. Or maybe I am saying that. The good people of Newton are creating a precious memory for tomorrow’s adults, which is no small thing.
Newton’s golden-lit streets the last evening of October are a gift that is all too rare these days. In the end, it’s not about the candy; it’s about a welcome mat for all who wish to participate whether we “belong” here or not. Newton isn’t a utopian Cleaverville, but compared to most places these days, it comes pretty darned close.
That Halloween night I realized how lucky I am to live in such a friendly, small town, where residents leave the lights on to welcome them for this timeless ritual of childhood. I was proud to show my California relatives how good life can be in our corner of the world.
Gary’s kids were so impressed that they begged to come back to Newton. You can bet Tuesday evening, we’ll be back at the Presbyterian Church trunk or treat and walking up the block with hundreds of other little people, enjoying time with friends and family in our version of the happiest place on earth.