Baltimore's ghosts of Halloweens past

October 31, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Leave it to Baltimore to accent Halloween with its own version of local dress.

Buried in the city's inventory of curious (if today rarely practiced) Oct. 31 tricks was the art of "flouring" an enemy -- or friend, for that matter.

You filled a stocking with flour, surprised your quarry and banged the garment against them. The impact of the sock did no harm but covered the victim in a powdery mess.

Baltimore established a partial calendar of nocturnal deeds geared to infuriate a victim. This progression moved through the closing days of October and ended on Halloween night.

The days that led up to Halloween followed an unofficial schedule. One of them came under the general heading of Moving Night.

On Moving Night no porch furniture, backyard gate or garbage can was secure. A wire gate might wind up being tossed over a lamp post or utility pole. A wicker chair might wind up in the alley. Pity the porch glider that went unattended.

Some neighborhoods provided their own variant on Moving Night.

In South Baltimore, for example, where front porches and lawns were scarce, there was Step Night.

Some of the oldest houses in the neighborhood now called Federal Hill were small and had detached wood front steps. These steps were usually only two or three treads high. Some householders often turned them upside down at night as a way of showing they had turned in.

The steps took an unplanned vacation on Step Night. They might turn up around the corner or be stacked in the alley. They were rarely destroyed, only inconveniently hidden.

Soap Night was another separate evening in the week before October 31. On that night it was fair game to scribble screen doors, house and car windows with soap.

Door Bell Night was a horror practiced in neighborhoods. This prank needed a long straight pin and an electric door bell. The pin was quietly inserted into the bell's button. If done correctly, the prank sent the bell into continuous ring. The culprit got to hide in the bushes.

Folklore writers tell us that many Halloween customs were born in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The ancient Celts marked Nov. x xTC as the beginning of a cruel winter. The Druids burned fires to mark this date. The candle in the jack o'lantern is said to be a holdover of this custom.

Step Night is one of the local applications of Druidic scare tactics.

Some Irish families here brought their own endearing beliefs to the night. To the religiously observant, Oct. 31 is the day before the feast of All Saints. Any baptized Christian who has died qualifies as a saint. Halloween is literally "all hallow even," or the night before the day of the holy persons, the hallowed.

Some believe that on Oct. 31 the souls of long-dead family members return to the homes of the living. Why any spirit would want to abandon the Elysian Fields for a one-night stay on the Patapsco River mud flats is one of the great Baltimore mysteries. But let's not quibble with tradition.

The heavenly visitors were to be greeted with proper respect. The parlors of many a Baltimore rowhouse were scrubbed and cleaned, then reserved for these celestial doorbell ringers.

On this heavenly Moving Out Night, the sainted departed called, invisible and in no mood for candy corn. Come daylight on All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), they returned to that much better address.

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