There’s something special, something important about final events: the last day of summer, the day before you move away from home, the day before one’s wedding, the final day on the job. My birthday is November 3rd. In my small town, in 1969, one of the unwritten rules governing Hallowe’en, carved in granite, was children could go trick-or-treating up to, but not one day past one’s twelfth birthday. Oh, there were no parents, teachers, or police to enforce such a rule – only the ironclad tyranny and scorn of peer pressure. A 12-year-old could technically make the rounds on All Hallow’s Eve if he or she had younger siblings to escort but could not go begging him or herself.
On November 3, 1969 I would be twelve years old and had no younger siblings to supervise. So it was that I was fully engrossed in preparations for my final fling at trick-or-treating. The route was mapped – hitting the old, painted lady Victorians on the lakeshore, then the postulant houses at the convent, and of course the homes of all my neighbors all meant great treats – and a route covering two miles. But what’s two miles in two hours? And with Hallowe’en on a Friday night, I didn’t even have to worry about how late I was out. The costume was ready; I had spent weeks creating a long, lush, black wig out of yarn, found my older sister’s peasant blouse along with her old crinolines in the attic, grandma’s colorful babushka and beads from the trunk, and purchased a bright, full skirt from the St. Vincent DePaul thrift store. I tried to get my mom to let me have my ears pierced, but she refused. Still, I would be the best gypsy on the streets. I was ready!
Then my older sister who had moved with her husband to Texas, went into labor a month early. Mom and Dad flew down to be with her, leaving me in the care of my 17-year-old brother. While it would be different with the parents gone, under the negligent care of Angus, I would get to stay out even later! Evelyn, Brenda, and Cheryl met every afternoon after school at my house to consolidate our plans. Finally, it was Friday morning – Hallowe’en! I couldn’t wait for the final bell of the day. I raced home to double check my costume and was met at the door by Angus.
“Change of plans,” is what he said. His friends, the Christensen brothers Dave and Arnie were headed up north to close up the family cabin for the winter. Angus and their friend Bob were invited along for an end of summer party. The guys would be by in half an hour to pick him up for the weekend.
“So…I’m supposed to stay home alone until you get back?” My mind was in overdrive. This could be the best Hallowe’en ever! Without even Angus to supervise, I could do whatever I wanted! And, since I had been cooking for the both of us for the past week, I wasn’t even concerned about food.
Angus quickly popped that bubble. “No. I’m not that irresponsible. I’ve made arrangements for you to stay with the Christensen’s until I get back.” The Christensens lived on a farm far out in the county. “Pack a bag for the weekend, and we will drop you off on our way out of town.”
“But what about Hallowe’en?” I wailed. “This is my last one and my friends and I have plans!”
“Plans change. After you get packed, call your friends and tell them you can’t make it. But I’m sure you won’t miss out on all the fun. The Christensens might live in the country, but I’m sure there’s trick-or-treating out there as well. Now get a move on – the guys will be here any minute. Oh, and don’t forget something nice to wear to church on Sunday.”
I briefly considered ducking out the back door and hiding in the park until Angus and his friends drove off, but I knew how stubborn my brother could be, so dejectedly, I dug out my suitcase and dumped in clean underwear, a skirt and blouse, my favorite cords and sweatshirt – and my gypsy costume. If I couldn’t be the best dressed gypsy on the streets of town, I would be the best dressed gypsy in the countryside.
An hour later, I watched my brothers and friends depart down the long farm driveway. An hour-and-a-half later, as I helped Mrs. Christensen set the table for supper, I learned to my horror that the Christenens did not celebrate “Devil’s night.” After a lengthy discourse on the evils of this pagan holiday, I realized there would be no trick-or-treating for me this night – and next year I would be too old. I wanted to cry.
I am certain the meal prepared that night was delicious. Mrs. Christensen had a reputation for being a marvelous cook. But to me, it was all tasteless as I dreamed of the Snickers bars, malted milk balls, Hershey’s kisses, and salt-water taffy I would be missing. I wouldn’t even have any candy for the Red Cross boxes at school on Monday morning! As soon as the supper dishes were washed and put away, I asked to be excused and went to my room, or rather, Dave and Arnie’s room. Morosely, I opened my suitcase and gazed at my gypsy costume. So much planning. So much effort. And now, nothing.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but the room was completely dark when a knock came at the door. Mrs. Christensen poked her head in. “Gracious, child! What are you doing here in the dark? I hope you have a warm sweater. If you don’t you can borrow one of mine. We’ll have to hurry. The bonfire starts in fifteen minutes.”
Bonfire? I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but I snatched up my sweatshirt and pulled it on. I followed Mrs. Christensen out the door and into their large back yard. I don’t know how I missed hearing them all arrive, but the barnyard was filled with cars and yet more were arriving. People of all ages spilled out of the vehicles and made their way to a ring of straw bales set around an enormous mound of old timbers, long dead Christmas trees, and still green branches.
Getting everyone settled on the straw bales took forever, but eventually all the little children were corralled and silence descended on the crowd. Mr. Christensen stood up and began to speak.
“On this day in 1517 a brave young monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote out a list of 95 complaints against the Roman Catholic church. He had come to these conclusions after several years of studying and teaching the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. He posted his 95 theses on the door of the University church to invite discussion and in the hope of reforming the Church. Instead, he was eventually declared a heretic and with a price on his head, went into hiding. While hidden away in Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the language of the people, which then and there was German. His stand for truth eventually led to the translation of the Bible into almost every language known to man so that the light of the Gospel could be preached to everyone.”
With that, Mr. Christensen thrust a torch into the middle of the wood pile. In seconds, flames were reaching for the sky. Cheers erupted. In minutes, they towered 50 feet above the ground. Adults began assembling a huge quantity of s’mores and handing out caramel apples and popcorn balls. Several men and women took up positions with guitars, a fiddle and a flute and began playing merry tunes that I later learned were actually hymns. As soon as the flames subsided to coals, each child – and me – were handed a long stick to roast our marshmallows for the s’mores. More treats, apple cakes, pumpkin bread, lemon bars, cookies galore and jugs of fresh apple cider were set out on a large table. Just as I was so full I thought I might never move again, a scavenger hunt in the darkened corn field was announced. There must have been 20 kids of all ages, including my own, and teenagers as well who took off for the field equipped with flashlights to search for treasures. Wandering through the rustling cornstalks, I found a small pouch with some chocolate candy, a miniature Bible, and a gold cross on a chain.
Inevitably, I, along with several others got thoroughly lost. Just as panic began to set in, I could hear Mr. Christensen shouting, “Just follow the light. Follow the light.” Looking up, I could see the bonfire once more reaching for the stars. I followed its light until I was back in the ring of straw bales. A few more minutes and all the kids were accounted for. We settled happily onto the straw as the musicians now led the crowd in a hymn sing, beginning with “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I don’t know how long we sang, but eventually the fire was nothing but embers. Many of the smallest kids were asleep on blankets on the grass. People began gathering their families together and headed for their cars. When the last car departed the farmyard, Mr. and Mrs. Christensen went inside. I was shocked to see that it was after midnight.
And that was how I spent the Hallowe’en that wasn’t.