A few Halloweens ago, I was sitting on the porch of my privatized housing at Naval Station Mayport, giving candy to trick-or-treaters on our street. My husband went door to door with our kids, while I stayed home and tried to not gorge myself on Heath Bars.
For the most part, the ghouls, goblins and princesses were what you’d expect: aged four to 14, wearing tennis shoes under their costumes, and taking three candies when they were supposed to take only two.
However, there were some unconventional trick-or-treaters: post-pubescent teens who were taller than me and shaved regularly; and first-time parents, pushing infants dressed as pea pods and pirates in strollers, who took candy despite the obvious fact that their babies had no teeth.
I couldn’t help but wonder, “Has Halloween become a sugar-coated free-for-all? And if it has, does anyone really care?”
Apparently, some do.
Several cities in Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina have enacted laws limiting the age one can trick-or-treat on Halloween night.
In a SurveyMonkey.com poll, 57 percent felt that kids should stop trick-or-treating between 12 and 15. And in a Today.com poll, 62 percent thought there should be an age limit, with 13 being the most common answer.
Mark Eckert, the mayor of one of the towns that restricts trick-or-treating after age 12, recalled, “When I was a kid, my father said to me, ‘You’re too damn big to be going trick-or-treating. You’re done.’ ”
That was the mentality during my childhood, too. In the ’70s, trick-or-treaters were elementary schoolers. Period. It was an unwritten rule followed without analysis or exception.
We trick-or-treated unchaperoned on Halloween wearing homemade get-ups like Charlie Brown’s bedsheets; or boxed costumes that consisted of a cheap mask and a 100 percent polyester sheath printed to resemble Bugs Bunny, Sleeping Beauty, or Fred Flintstone. Not only did the poor children wearing these costumes look nothing like the characters they longed to portray, they also had to steer clear of open fires to avoid bursting into flames.
The masks had two round holes to see through, and a tiny slit at the mouth that was not big enough to allow breath to escape, making it a steamy, uncomfortable affair. Made of eggshell-thin plastic and held on by flimsy elastic bands, the masks had a working life of about an hour and a half.
But low-quality costumes were not the only harsh realities of Halloween in the 1970s. While the elementary kids were scampering door to door, the rest of the teenage population was in the streets too, toilet-papering, egging, powder bombing, window soaping, pumpkin smashing and ding-dong-ditching the night away.
Which is why a significant number of people today, 39 percent in the Today.com poll, say that trick-or-treating should be encouraged at any age.
Hans Broedel, a University of North Dakota professor who has studied the history of Halloween customs, said: “Trick-or-treating in a large part is embraced in this country because it serves to cut down on teenage vandalism.”
Indiana University School of Public Health professor Jonathon Beckmeyer said that older teens might trick-or-treat for the free candy, or it could be that they enjoy experimenting with new identities. “Halloween is the ultimate role play day,” said Golden Gate University professor, Dr. Kit Yarrow, who opined that millennials simply like to express themselves in public ways.
On that Halloween night in Mayport, something else happened that helped me to put things in perspective.
The street was buzzing with trick-or-treaters, when suddenly the base loudspeaker crackled with the nightly broadcast of “Colors.” Every parent, pea pod, pirate, princess, goblin, ghoul and gangly teenager stopped to face the flag. For a moment, we all recognized that, at any age, the sweetest treat we have is being American.
Email Lisa Smith Molinari at email@example.com