A Latina’s Memory of Halloween

Growing up in Queens, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. Heck, it’s every kids’ favorite holiday. The mountains of candy. All the planning that goes into choosing and creating a “spooktacular” costume. The hayrides and visits to the pumpkin patch, in search of the biggest, orangiest, most perfect pumpkin, then taking it home to carve.  Gathering around the fireplace to listen while your father reads aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and fills your head with ghost stories, guaranteed to scare the bejezus out of you.

Wait. Almost forgot. My family didn’t do any of this stuff.

Don’t forget, my Latino parents were new to this country and didn’t have much. Which is why there were eight of us living in a tiny brownstone in Queens. Besides, they’d never heard of Halloween before.

So, in my house, we were lucky we got to do Halloween at all. And, it was done on a shoestring. There were no Halloween decorations, no carving Jack O’Lanterns, no spending weeks and weeks making an elaborate costume.

My little sister and I, getting ready to go trick or treating. I’m wearing my Cinderella costume for yet another year, while my sister is disguised as a little girl. Very clever, Regina!

We didn’t buy any candy except for that which we were giving away. It would sit in a grocery bag by the door waiting for the trick-or-treaters, and God help the kid in my house who’d try to snitch a piece before the festivities began.

And, the only pumpkins in our house were the cheap, plastic kind that you could buy at the Five and Dime store. They were supposed to be used to collect your treats in, but if you ask me, the black handle was so thin and flimsy, it would often break off before the night was out.

On Halloween day, my teacher would give each of us little boxes, reminding us of the importance to collect pennies for UNICEF. “Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” was what we were supposed to say, though, half the time, I forgot to do so.

I had the cheesiest costume. Back then, costumes came in boxes that had cellophane covered lids, so you could see the mask. There was always a mask, made of hard plastic with a thin piece of string around the back to help you hold the mask in place. Wearing the mask made it hard to breathe or see. Plus, that string could snap, and fall off, causing severe pain in the process. My mask broke the first time I ever tried it on. Ouch!

Not being able to afford the cost of a costume, my mother bought one for me when I was five, in a size way too large, so that I could wear it year after year, all the way through fifth grade. Of course, what I picked to wear at age five, a Cinderella costume, was embarrassing to wear by age 10, and, no matter how I wore it, there was no mistaking it: I looked like a dork.

But, that didn’t matter, because Halloween night in New York was generally very cold, and my mother would make me wear wool pants under my costume dress. At first, I wore my coat under my dress, but when that was no longer possible, I had to wear it over the costume, making said costume no longer visible. Which, made me look just like any other dumb kid freezing to death.

In sixth grade, when I finally had the chance to be something else for Halloween, I decided to be a French painter. Why French? I don’t know. I wore a beret, a red and white striped smock, and carried an artist’ pallet and brush. But, my accent was all Queens, which is why no one could figure out that I was supposed to be French.

At the end of the night, my brothers and I would dump our candy stash on the floor and separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, the good candy from the stinky.

The Good:  Almond Joy, Snickers, Mr. Goodbar and just about anything else chocolate. Sugar Babies and lollipops were keepers, too.

Stinkers:  Mary Jane’s, Tootsie Rolls, Good and Plenty, waxed lips, and black and orange taffy.

In junior high, Karen, a classmate, invited the whole class to a Halloween party. It was my first such party, replete with bobbing for apples, spooky music, and pumpkin carving. The only thing missing was a hayride, but we lived in the suburbs, for crying out loud, not on a farm.

A friend and I were 14 years old the last time we went trick or treating. All it took was for one adult to answer the door, size us up, roll his eyes, and say, “Aren’t you kids, too old to be trick or treating?” That was the year I hung up my beret for good.

Flash forward many years:  My son was three the first time I took him trick or treating. It was wonderful to see the excitement in his eyes, and the joy from getting more candy than he could ever possibly eat.  At the end of the evening, as we were walking back home, I said to him, next year we’ll start out earlier.

Which made him stop in his tracks, turn toward me with utter shock his eyes, and exclaim with utter euphoria,

“You mean this is going to happen again??”

So, tell me. What are your childhood memories of Halloween?

40 thoughts on “A Latina’s Memory of Halloween

  1. Aaaah, the cheap boxed costumes. I think my mom made my costume for fhe first few years, though I have no idea what I was, then yes, one year I begged and “got to” be a Princess in a storebought costume, tissue thin and cheap with the string at the back, with that foul mask that got all sweaty and steamy on the outside. I remember the band snapping and trying to put it back on, and being disappointed, because my reflection in the mirror did NOT look anything like the picture on the box. This was BEFORE putting on our coats.

    Wisconsin at Halloween time, it was like we all all perverts in training. Ring the bell, and when the people came to the door, open your coat and flash them your costume.

    • I remember that when the band snapped, as it inevitably did, it was so painful. But, back then we didn’t have all the regulations over kids’ toys and clothing that we have now. So we put up with it and thought our costumes were cool. 😉

  2. I love the photo of you and your sister, Monica. I didn’t experience Halloween until I had kids and it was easy to get into the whole thing because it was new to me. Not even in Australia did I see much trick or treating, although latterly, it has caught on. My kids recycle outfits regularly and my nine year old has been all of the main characters of Harry Potter over a four year period. We change it up a little. I’m not a huge fan of buying costumes but I gave in this year – why, I don’t know. I ran out of creativity, I think. With my youngest, anyone who gives out Twix or Snickers is generally honored, although quite often we don’t know which neighbor it is. No one likes Tootsie rolls in my house 🙂 I’ve told my girls they can do it for a few more years and by age 13, they have to stop.

  3. Monica, reading this post was like going back in time! Those horrible costumes with the plastic mask! I hated them! My mother always encouraged us to make our own costumes with whatever items we found in the house. My sisters and I dressed as gypsies two years in a row. ha! Other times we were fairies, princesses, old ladies, hobos, whatever we could create. I had to smile at the orange and black taffy. Those were always in the dud pile but I quite enjoyed the Mary Janes! Now I’m craving one! hee hee! Loved the shot of you and your sister! 🙂

    • Bella, I wasn’t a fan of Mary Janes at all. Yuck. I would have gladly given you mine! Re the costumes I describe, they don’t make them anymore, do they? Have you seen any since? They really were horrible!

  4. You took me time traveling with you. I totally forgot about costumes coming in a box and those horrible masks you could breathe through. Nightmares. I went as a hobo many times. It was easy and didn’t cost much bar some of my dad’s shoe polish. What stands out for me is being old enough to carry a pillow case and running from house to house, competing with the boys in my block gag, to see who could get the most candy. Mrs. Wilson, HAD THE BEST CANDY. I remember her.

    • Glad to hear, Brenda. I love that Mrs. Wilson had the best candy. I love that you remember her name! Reminds me of Dennis the Menace, who always had a run-in with Mr. Wilson. Think there was any relation? 😉

  5. I remembering being little red riding hood one year and my parents checking every candy bar for razor blades. I thought I was soooooo cool in that costume! My kids love halloween, too. My daughter will be a FLAMENCO dancer. and my son doesn’t know yet. Have to get something ready tonight!

  6. This is great, Monica. I love the details of the little string behind the masks. And you are so right, they were horrible. You couldn’t breathe and if you had older siblings or neighborhood stinkers, they would pull them forward and let them snap back against the face and nose. Not fun.

  7. My kids are lucky now because the neighborhood we live in embraces Halloween! The teenagers make a haunted house in one of the garages, the retired teacher up the street has a coffin in her patio and her sons dress up as werewolves and scare the kids, in some cases it’s the only time I see some of my neighbors so it becomes quite the social occasion! It’s a bit odd that it takes a spooky holiday to bring people together but…whatever it takes I suppose 🙂

    • That sounds great, Trisha. It is weird though that it takes such a holiday to bring neighbors together. But, people like scary stuff and wearing costumes, so maybe it’s not so strange after all.

  8. The last time I went trick or treating was when I was 12 or 13 living in Ramstein, Germany, very tall for my age, 5’8″ already. My best friend Elisabeth and I thought we were really something in our super great costumes, me in a billowy clown costume with a high pointed hat, but then this one man opened the door and laughed and laughed like we were the craziest things he’d ever seen, “Aren’t you too old to be doing this!?” We didn’t think so. Many Halloweens later as an adult I won three different awards for best costume so I had the last laugh — so all in all, Halloween brings many happy memories. More recently, I wore a realistic gorilla mask to Starbuck’s, complete with a red flower pinned to my hair, all dressed in black with a red and white lacy garter belt around my ankle — there I was standing in line to order a vente latte and having great fun all the way around.

  9. Ah, Monica, THIS is exactly why I don’t like Halloween! I, too, remember the yucky costumes, the bitter cold (often mixed with a driving rain!), and the fear. My parents kept a pretty tight leash on us kids, so Trick or Treating had to be done at houses where they knew the owners. Then they went through our stash with a fine-toothed comb, culling the suspicious (“where’d this come from?”) from the acceptable (“they always give good stuff”). I never liked the darkness. When I was in about eighth grade, a classmate had a Halloween party, much like the one you described, with a scavenger hunt and everything — much better than Trick or Treating, in my book! And yes, I always tried to make it more enjoyable for my son (though I don’t think it’s anywhere near his favorite holiday, either!)

    • Fear? In those days? We felt pretty safe and despite it all, I enjoyed it. My son still celebrates to some extent. He and his girlfriend like to dress up in outfits that complement each other. Me? These days, my version of Halloween is curling up with a good movie, like, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” 😉

  10. My sister and I always got our costumes from the dress-up box (old clothes that my parents couldn’t wear anymore). My favorites were my mother’s costumes from her childhood dance recitals or anything we could find that went with her white go-go boots. We also often had snow on Halloween, so we had to decide if we wanted to wear our coats over or under our costumes. Neither option was good. But my sister and I always had fun together and we made that candy last for a long time.

    The neighborhood I live in now doesn’t get any trick or treaters and I’m always disappointed. Every year, I’ve bought candy and turned on the porch light just in case, but this year I decided to save myself from all of those calories. I’ll probably change my mind on the 31st, though. Do you think there will be any candy left in the stores?

  11. Such a compelling story of your childhood Halloweens. As for me, growing up in an apartment building, I went around with my mother and a friend or two. Once I was over eight, no parents; just kids. Either my building or a friend’s. I had a few friends in VERY swanky Manhattan apt buildings where the quantity of candy was like nothing I’d dreamed of above 96th Street! In my building, there was always the fear of ringing the wrong doorbell, that of a “crazy lady” since we had a few in our building. One really hated kids and (at least to me at the time) looked like a real wicked witch. Made it more exciting, I think.

    Oh, and I agree: wax lips! Yuck. Who ever dreamed up those? And I gave an A+ to all those who doled out Peppermint Patties!

    • Lisa, I think I was pretty much on my own from the get-go. Probably started off with my brothers, but mostly, I’d go with a group of friends. In Queens we always felt safe. It wasn’t until later, after we moved to Long Island, that my parents’ house was robbed, like two or three times. It was crazy.

  12. This brought back so many memories. The biggest being I went out with friends all in our makeshift costumes. We would put on gobs of our mother’s makeup and whatever funny clothes and accessories we found in the house and head out right after school. No parents and no worries we were going to be snatched. We knew all the neighbors and they knew us. After dinner we would head over to the garden apartments that were near our home and get even more goodies from multiple doors on one floor. The candy would fill up our pillowcases or shopping bags from the grocery store depending on which we chose. The plastic pumpkins with the black handle just wasn’t big enough as we progressed around the neighborhood. We were so lucky if we got some coins from people who ran out of candy and we could count it up at the end of the night. Hersey Bars, Almond Joy and maybe a couple of coins adding to a dollar and Halloween was a great time! My own kids had multiple experiences with store bought costumes, my husband and I alongside and either the mall shops were the candy distributors or we had to go to a neighborhood with actual sidewalks. The West Coast seems short on those areas. We moved to a neighborhood in the Palm Springs area that had actual sidewalks and street lamps. It was gated and there would be a line up of cars to get into our area because everyone got into the spirit of decorating and handing out great candy. I loved that my kids were able to finish out their Halloween experience there and have a taste of what I had when I was growing up on Long Island. I continue to decorate but where we have moved the kids go into town and the shops hand out the goodies. This holiday still brings out the kid in me….

    • I hated those plastic pumpkins, but I think what I’d do was rush home and dump the contents when filled, for another round. Don’t think I ever got to wear my mother’s makeup because I had the mask, but took about discomfort. Sheesh.

  13. In the beginning I was thinking..what? Monica’s family did all that?? Then as I read on I thought. Ok. That’s more like our family. I feel our experience is almost exactly the same. Except I was a gypsy more than one time. We were also not allowed to touch the candy at the door. We were.lucky to ever eat candy. That’s why Halloween was so special .. a momentary pardon from the ban of sweets in our house.

    • Wow, Renee, I didn’t know candy was banned in your home. It wasn’t so much banned in our home as we didn’t have it because it cost money. But I remember one time out with my brother, Rafael, we were running and I spotted an entire quarter. We immediately took that quarter and headed to the candy store. Heaven.

  14. Oh, I love this post, Monica. I have a funny photo of me dressed in a bunny rabbit costume when I was about 4 or 5. This inspires me to write about Halloween during my childhood. We had to wear coats and leggings under our costumes, as well, It was cold in Pittsburgh.

  15. Loved your description of the costumes that came in a box with the mask on top looking through to the buyer. I’ll never forget Daughter #1 dressed up with a mask on her face looking in the full length mirror–like she didn’t know or what to make of it all.

    • Georgette, glad you agree about the costumes. They don’t make them like that anymore, do they? We were probably a lot more gullible then, willing to accept lower quality if the price was right. I’m sure these were really cheap.

  16. Halloween remains my favorite, I love the dress up and the children. Up through my adulthood I loved to go to parties and would spend weeks creating my costume. Must be that Houston is a bayou city with very much a New Orleans flavor and great All Hallows Eve parties.

    My childhood, spent in Seattle, Texas and Germany was full of strange times. Halloween was usually rained out in Seattle, horrible and I wouldn’t go out. Germany didn’t really have Halloween. Texas of course, well loved it.

  17. I remember the plastic mask costumes! I also remember trick or treating once or twice in the snow (Minneapolis is colder than Queens). It’s always odd to me to see people on TV trick or treating in the costumes appropriate to LA at this time of year. Here you pick out the costume KNOWING you’ll be wearing a coat either over or under it.

    • Too funny, Lisa. Yes, it is convenient that on TV they all seem to be trick or treating in a warm climate. Of course, where I live now, it’s true! It was in the 80’s today and I expect it’ll stay this way through Halloween!

  18. Your son’s reaction is priceless. I think we all had the experience of disbelief on first encountering Halloween for the first time and being confused that adults would give us as much candy as we wanted for just one day. It seemed like a trick.

    • Seemed to easy, if you ask me. But it never occurred to me that my son wouldn’t assume it to be an annual tradition. Maybe one day, assuming I have grandkids, I’ll tell them they get only one shot at Halloween and need to do it right, because the candy they get has to last for years. Let’s see if they fall for that.

      So, do they do Halloween in China? If not, your poor kids. Let me know where I can send them some candy. 😉

  19. Hi Monica

    When I was young here in the UK we did not really do anything for Halloween, it’s only become popular in the last few years.

    In this neck of the woods the kids make very little effort to dress up, they bang on your door as loud as they can and shout trick or treat through the letterbox.

    Anybody who does not answer could often find their windows pelted with eggs and flour. In fact it got so bad that UK Police Forces now do a poster you can download and print out to put on your front door saying no trick or treat, and woe betide anybody who ignores the sign.

    I am sorry to say over here it has become a night of child begging and threats, I have seen parents of the children be verbally abusive to people who opened the door and said no.

    I am sorry but if they banned it totally here then we would all have a peaceful evening.

    So not a fan in any way shape or form I am sorry to say Monica, but that said interesting to read your experiences that side of the pond.

    • I’m not as big a fan as I once was, though I’ll always have a soft spot for the holiday, one of the few holidays that seems to transcend religion and is therefore, more inclusive as holidays go. But I feel like adults have hijacked the holiday and made it their own. Perhaps it’s their way of never growing up. Who knows? It’s just the way it is.

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