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Halloween party

Food For Thought

Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery titled “Halloween Party” in which a young girl is drowned in a tub of water used for the game of bobbing for apples. The challenge is to catch an apple floating in water without using your hands. I found it nearly impossible to sink my teeth into a floating apple, as it requires a bit of pressure to bite into the apple’s skin, and the apple tends to skitter away unless you can manage to corral it against the side of the tub. The game tends to be a rather soggy affair for all participants and is death on crepe paper costumes and face-painting.
I remember only one Halloween party at my house during my childhood. Mother had a dryer version of the game for us with an apple suspended by a string in an open doorway. We had to keep our hands clasped behind our back and catch the apple with our teeth, a challenge most easily met if we could manage to trap the apple against the side of the doorway.
We played Musical Chairs to the accompaniment of Burl Ives’s recording of The Bum Song. Blindfolded, we attempted to pin a tail on a black construction paper cat, and played some of the same games we played at birthday parties and during rainy-day recesses at school. Refreshments consisted of popcorn, orange Kool-Aid, chocolate cupcakes, and black licorice sticks. From what I remember, it was a rather dull party and the only one ventured during my childhood.
Years later, I read Agatha Christie’s story and learned about some of the Halloween traditions common in England. This was about a party given for young teenagers and involved lots of junk food, colored lights and seasonal decorations. Rather than costume judging, Christie’s party featured decorated broomsticks which had apparently been sent to the guests along with the invitations. Since the story is a murder mystery, Christie dealt with murder-related clues in meticulous detail but skimmed over other subjects, leaving me a bit fuzzy on just what these decorated broomsticks looked like. I assumed they were miniature, child-size brooms but have no idea how they would have been decorated for judging. Two games were described in greater detail. One, the cutting of a flour cake, seems to have been a traditional party game. A glass tumbler is packed with flour then carefully turned out on a tray, much like those “cupcakes” of wet sand we used to make in our childhood sand piles, and a coin is placed on top of it. Then, in a process of elimination, players take turns slicing off a bit of the “cake” until someone cuts too close and the coin falls. That person is eliminated, a new flour cake is made and the game continues until one player remains and is declared the winner. Fortune-telling seemed another common part of the Halloween celebration, and a rather occult tradition, where the girls at the party supposedly see the faces of their future husbands by means of small mirrors aimed over their shoulders in a darkened room. Probably the most exciting game, or at least the one that seems to lend itself specifically to Halloween, is the Snapdragon. This was apparently the long-anticipated climax of the party and involved a platter of blazing raisins (presumably raisins soaked in rum or brandy) placed in the middle of the table. Participants snatched warm raisins from the platter before the flames died down. The excitement, it seems, comes from the notion of playing with fire and the very real danger of getting burned or catching one’s sleeve on fire in the process.
Personally, I would prefer the usual activities my sisters and I indulged in most Halloweens.
We made our own costumes, assembled from old clothes, hats, purses, costume jewelry, curtains, cardboard, burlap bags and our imaginations. We made noise-makers from wooden spools that had once held sewing thread. We notched the rims around both ends of the spool, inserted a pencil through the hole and wound a yard of string around the spool. With a scrap of soap, snitched from the bathroom in our pockets, we set out to “go Halloween-ing.”
We would sneak across a darkened yard to someone’s house, hold the spool by its pencil “handle” against the window or siding and pull the string. Unwinding the string caused the spool to rotate rapidly, its notched edges making a satisfying, loud clatter against the window or wall. Where front porch lights were left on in invitation, we would knock and demand “trick or treat” and nobody ever demanded we perform to earn our treat. The treat (usually a popcorn ball, cupcake, cookie or apple) was intended to be a bribe to refrain from soaping their windows or some other annoying antic. We never went home with the bags full of candy today’s kids collect, but we did usually use up those scraps of soap.