Less bang for the buck

Boo! Americans spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on all the trappings of Halloween. Yet there's a ghost of a chance that tomorrow's holiday was more fun in the good old days.

October 30, 1999|By Mike Ollove | Mike Ollove,SUN STAFF

Here's a truly scary item: According to the History Channel, Americans now spend $2.5 billion to celebrate Halloween. Billion! That's more than the entire budgets of some states. In terms of commercial extravagance, only Christmas surpasses Halloween.

But the big question is this: With all that money laid out for store-bought costumes, Kit-Kat Bars and imitation cobwebs, is Halloween really any more interesting at the end of the century than it was at the beginning?

Maybe not, says the Maryland Historical Society's Janet Surrett, who has researched the history of Halloween celebrations here. Her conclusion: While All Hallows' Eve has gotten more expensive, it has not necessarily gotten more fun. A case can be made that the ancient holiday was celebrated far more exuberantly 75 to 100 years ago.

"People tend to think Halloween reached its peak during our time," says Surrett, "but in some way, it was even bigger earlier in the century."

For instance, until the Depression years, all of Baltimore seemed to turn out for huge Halloween gatherings at one of two locations -- on Pennsylvania Avenue for black Baltimore and on Baltimore Street for whites. Underneath skies thick with confetti, tens of thousands would parade in home-made costumes, dancing in the streets and sounding horns and noise-makers. Virtually the entire police force was dispatched to patrol the festivities, vigilant against bean-shooters and urchins who splattered the unsuspecting with great heaps of flour before disappearing into the crowds.

The police in Baltimore hated Halloween.

With good reason. Halloween mischief was more formalized and longer lasting in those days. Depending on the neighborhood, tricksters followed a prescribed schedule of pranks in the days leading up to Halloween. The first day might be Soaping Night, when they covered car and house windows with the stuff. It might be followed by Doorbell Night (you can imagine) and then Moving Night, when porch furniture would mysteriously levitate onto tree limbs.

But not all was vandalism in a Baltimore Halloween. Surrett says romance was also in the air. A prominent feature of Halloween parties in the early 20th century were fortune-telling rituals designed to tell young women whether and who they would marry.

"Take your undergarment off at midnight on Hallowe'en," one ritual instructed, "wash it backward, dry it backward and then sit down before the stove backward without speaking, and if you are to marry, you will see your future husband come down the steps; if you are not to marry, a black cat will come down the steps, followed by four men carrying a coffin."

It was, obviously, a more romantic era.

The Maryland Historical Society is holding an old-fashioned Halloween festival Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 201 W. Monument St. Tickets are $5.

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