The weather was always cool enough to justify a fire in the fireplace but pleasant enough that the Halloween festivities of the evening were hardly ever dampened by rain. The leaves of my childhood would have recently changed color, crisped and started to fall.
It was always a good day when we didn’t have to wear our uniforms to school and always a welcome distraction to the school day to see what costumes our classmates had dreamed up. There was always at least one person who wore regular clothes and claimed to be dressed up as a “public school kid.”
Teachers were usually generous enough to assign minimal homework, but even that was done hurriedly after school. Math problems were left without double-checks; vocabulary worksheets never even saw an open dictionary.
For my sister and me, the wait for our parents to return home from work felt especially long each year on Oct. 31. The pumpkins had been carved the night before, and the candy bowl was hidden somewhere we couldn’t find (or at least couldn’t reach). The house was full of the spicy, delicious smell of chili, which stewed in the crockpot all day long.
When our parents finally did get home, it was all we could do to keep from bombarding them with with questions and requests before they reached the back door. “Will you help me with my costume?” “I can’t find my trick-or-treat bag!” “What time are people coming over?” “Do I get to go trick-or-treating without adults this year?”
The answer to the last question was almost invariably “no” to begin with, but the rules would slacken as the night wore on. Parents who were tired of walking up and down every block would wait on the corner for us to ensure we had received the most candy possible from each and every street. As we grew older, they would let us venture onto streets close to home on our own. By the time I was in high school and most of my friends were behind the wheel, we’d collect canned goods for local charities early in the evening and get into a little teenage trouble later in the night.
As the sun began to set, Dad always made sure there was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and the smell of apple cider on the stove mixed with the chili for a quintessential autumn aroma. Family and friends arrived at our house in a steady stream, some stopping by on their candy collection route for a bowl of chili and to warm up by the fire. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and other Halloween classics like “Hocus Pocus” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” played all night in the background.
After my friends and I had sufficiently canvassed the neighborhood and our pillowcases were almost too heavy to carry from all the candy, we returned home and sat in front of the fire to warm up, and then the highlight of the evening began – counting the candy.
It wasn’t a simple process. Candy had to be organized and categorized – chocolate on one side, everything else on the other. Everything was stacked in neat piles according to brand; Skittles, Hershey bars and Reese’s were always the most valuable. Once all the really good stuff was in its proper place, a small pile of raisin boxes, jaw-breakers and stale gum remained in the middle of the room.
Then, of course, the living room became a stock exchange of sugar. A Reese’s was the most coveted currency, followed by other chocolate standards, as well as Tootsie-pop ghosts (depending on the flavor), and a lot of sweets were up for negotiation. How many Hershey Kisses was a single Reese’s worth? Was a popcorn ball for a bag of candy corn a fair trade? It was a complex system.
When it was all done and costumes were swapped for pajamas, many a Halloween ended with kids asleep on the carpet with a movie playing and a dying fire occasionally crackling. The candy was transferred to plastic bags or bowls that would last until a few weeks before Christmas, the stale gum and jawbreakers the final touches on many a homemade gingerbread house.