Let me tell you about ‘Beggars’ Night’

Trick or Treat? I get the treat part, but I can’t quite grasp the trick part. After all, Trick or Treat is kind of a new term. At least, it is around here.

It is that afternoon and evening before Halloween when kids, often accompanied be their parents, go out — usually in broad daylight — all dressed in store-bought costumes to ring doorbells or bang on doors in order to get a handout of candy. That’s the treat part. The trick part escapes me. Maybe the kids are supposed to do a handstand or something for the trick. The time that they are to do this is regulated by a schedule printed in the Tribune Chronicle.

Let me tell you about the way it once was when it was called Beggars’ Night:

Let’s go back to 1944. Our gym / art teacher at Garfield Elementary, Sarah Mae Thompson — you’ve read of her in this column before, dear reader — had a special Halloween project for us, her fourth graders.

It was wartime, and finding a halfway decent Halloween mask at Kresge’s or Woolworth’s in downtown Warren was a losing proposition. So, Sarah Mae had us make our own papier-mache masks.

We each chose partners. We had bowls of a mixture of flour and water and torn newspaper strips to soak in that mixture. The first partner would sit on a stool while the second partner would cover his (we were all boys) face with strips of the soaked newspaper, being sort of careful not to cover his nostrils. The mouth didn’t matter.

Just before the end of the period, the partial mask was pulled off, and the first partner would rush to the sink to wash. The unfinished mask had to dry overnight. The next day, we would trade positions. After that, we would add more papier-mache, paint the mask to suit (usually grotesque, but not necessarily by design) and shellac the whole thing.

Except for adding some kind of costume to go with the mask, we were ready for Beggars’ Night. Nobody I ever knew of back then had even heard of Trick or Treat.

We would start out at dusk. We were eight and nine-year-olds on a mission. Our troupe was made up of your writer with that mask, Stanley, Skippy, Carly and Janice. Stanley and Skippy had little sisters Kitten and Brenda respectively, who came along. They were about five. No parent was even thought of for the role of chaperone.

Since it was pretty cold that dark night, we wore coats under our costumes, which made for a pretty sweaty time of it, when childless couples would invite us in for cocoa. We needed to get going, because we wanted to increase our take. Besides, we didn’t want to get caught outdoors after the 9 p.m. curfew.

We didn’t have fancy plastic jack-o’-lantern containers with handles or other commercial devices for our stuff. Most of us used either pillow cases or brown paper bags. It was wartime, and precious few pieces of candy were part of the loot. We received hard-boiled eggs, apples, oranges, tangerines, chewing gum and pennies instead of all the candy kids get now. Maybe that’s why most of my former classmates nowadays still have their original smiles.

The low-hanging layers of smoke from burning leaves assaulted our nostrils, and we liked to wade through raked-up piles of fallen leaves to reach our objectives. None of us had such things as wrist watches to tell us the time, so we were caught off guard when the 9 p.m. wartime curfew whistle blew. No kid was to be out on the streets after that.

Our little group quickly disbanded, and we all ran toward our homes as quickly as we could, being all encumbered by masks, costumes and our loot.

We didn’t want to get arrested and have to spend the rest of Beggars’ Night in jail.

Mumford, of Warren, can be reached at columns@tribtoday.com.

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