It’s been hard to hold on to the traditions and times of our GenX childhoods. Case in point: Halloween. And, let’s face it – the Generation X version of Halloween disappeared long before COVID hit. We may want to blame the pandemic as we pine away for the 70's and 80's, but I noticed they were gone years ago. Most kids today have never even heard of “Mischief Night.”
In 1982 in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, all 12-year olds I knew – including me, as well as younger siblings, ran “wild.” We had independence, and no tracking apps. The costume contest at the park district club house was the cool place to be. The “adults” running things there were high school or college kids. Parents were not hanging out, hovering, or helicoptering.
Out trick or treating, us kids – not our parents – were the ones who knew which were the spooky houses and suspicious neighbors to avoid. Our parents weren’t waiting for us on the sidewalk at every stop. They weren’t having wine on their porches watching us walk by. They were getting back from work, or cleaning up after dinner, or at home watching television. We knew the alleys where trouble lurked – and the best hiding spots in the park after dark, where we would scare the heck out of our friends. No one ran to an adult crying. I don’t even remember adults being anywhere nearby.
At the end of the evening, we’d gather in a circle at a friend’s house to dump out and sort our candy (one thing that seems to still exist today – well, maybe not this year, but in recent years…): 100 Grand bars, Milky Ways, Jolly Ranchers, Nerds, Sprees, SweetTarts, Now & Laters, Fun Dip. We figured out trades on our own, without parents overseeing negotiations. I don’t remember anyone having a nut allergy. I don’t even remember any mom or dad popping in and looking over our shoulders, asking for a Reese’s.
But perhaps the most iconic “celebration,” at least for me in the Midwest back in the 80’s, took place the night before Halloween – “Mischief Night,” every October 30. “Mischief Night” is an informal “holiday” of kids and teens running about doing pranks around the neighborhood. About 1 in 4 Americans can’t even name this night. I don’t know if that’s because it’s fallen by the wayside, or if just certain parts of the country had or have it. I know Illinois knew it, and studies show New Jersey was well aware of it (in the past, some NJ towns even banned the sales of eggs that day!). It’s been called Devil’s Night in Detroit and the Upper Midwest, and Cabbage Night in Vermont.
Where I grew up, it was harmless fun, or at least we thought it was – toilet papering people’s cars and houses, turning porch or yard furniture upside down, moving pumpkins, and, the end-all, be-all, “shaving cream-ing” car windows. (Don’t worry – they were parked cars)!
I remember how hard it was for kids like us to buy shaving cream on October 29 and 30. My step-brother, also twelve in 1982, must have gotten someone’s older brother to buy us some. I think he also stole a few cans from my stepfather’s bathroom closet. When he showed me the cans hidden underneath his jacket as we ran screaming away for the night after dark, our parents engrossed in some television show back home, I was so excited you would have thought he’d won the keys to a castle.
I don’t remember the all the candy I got the next night, on Halloween, but I do remember that feeling of running, as fast as we could, down that road and into our Mischief Night adventures. I was fueled by the idea that anything could happen (in a good way). We had four cans of shaving cream and the night ahead of us and it was my chance to be “bad” – at least for a few hours.
I don’t remember even running into anyone that night. It was like we owned the town. I know we didn’t get caught, and I doubt we did anything really stupid (or very destructive).
Did we even have a destination? It might have been the old Continental belonging to the dad of a school mate we couldn’t stand, or the coach’s car from the rival Pop Warner football team. The closer we came to an actual front door or driveway, or porch light flipping on, the more exciting things became. It was…exhilarating. I was breathless. I was happy. It was fun.
When was the last time you felt that way? Racing without a real destination, full of energy, fueled by the excitement of something that, maybe, wasn’t even real?
I’ve thought a lot about that Mischief Night of 1982 as I’ve grown older, and I’ve often wondered how to get that feeling back again. Perhaps it was just a moment in time. Of being 12, when something so small, like a can of shaving cream, held so much promise. And when it was easy to feel part of a kind of mystical celebration, even if it was just sneaking around in the shadows, with just one person by my side.
Here’s more about the history of Mischief Night