By Gregory Clark, October 30, 1926.

When your door bell rings on Hallowe’en, answer it.

It will be somebody.

There used to be a time when it was not safe to answer the door bell after dusk on All Hallows Eve. Not only would there be NOBODY there, which is eerie enough, egad, but in all probability, when you opened your door, to peer into the ghostly darkness, a pail of water, carefully supported on the top of your doorsill would upset on your head; or you might be pelted with peas from unseen peashooters, or a string would have been stretched across the entrance so that you would trip and fall all over your own doorstep; or something strange, violent and mysterious would befall you.

Those days are gone forever. In the twentieth century we have driven mystery to the wall. If the door bell rings on Hallowe’en you need expect no mystery. It will be your aunt or the grocery boy or perhaps a poor man selling sheet music.

You see that old gentleman, there, in your mind’s eye-the one with the grey hair and ruddy complexion, who is so indignant because a gang of little boys are celebrating Hallowe’en by yelling feebly out on the street? He is very indignant. He can’t read his paper after dinner. He says it’s an outrage that children should be allowed to run at large at such an hour – eight o’clock!

Well, let me tell you about the way they celebrated Hollow Eve, as they used to call it, in the small Ontario town where he was born.

It is hard to reduce this portly, dignified old gent to a husky little boy of ten, with red cheeks and rough little chapped paws, and ragged pants. But that’s he, fifty years ago.

That’s he. Watch him.

There were two personages in every town and village in Ontario who, when Hollow Eve approached, began to suffer certain alarms. They were the schoolmaster and the town constable.

If there was also in the village an old bachelor who was a deacon and lived with his maiden sister in a cottage down near the end of the street, he joined the schoolmaster and the town constable in the ranks of the impending victims. This man generally had wiry whiskers of the pattern that grew in a fringe upwards out of his collar.

The day of Hollow Eve went by in a curious air of expectancy. The older folks wore a worried and watchful air. But everybody under eighteen years of age, largely the boys, wore the look of mastery. This night, big things would be doing. This night was to be theirs.

In this crowd of boys scuttling in the first shadows of nightfall outside the schoolmaster’s back lot, look you, a little red-cheeked rascal of ten, with chapped paws and ragged breeches. Keep your eye on him.

The schoolmaster sits within his kitchen, listening, intently.

He hears a mysterious sound at his front gate. Creeping to his door he peeps through the drawn blind and sees a group of boys working at the hinges. When he leaps out they disappear. He keeps a keen watch, but every time he withdraws the figures appear.

This, you might say, is a dumb way for boys to behave on Hollow Eve. But you notice that the schoolmaster is being detained at his front door. What is going on at his back? Wouldn’t he like to know!

For this party at the front are merely the feint attack. Let us hope they can restrain their boyish excitement long enough to stick to their job, though they all wish they could be on what is going on at the far end of the schoolmaster’s lot.

Painting Bessie Green

In the darkness, in profound silence, the schoolmaster’s only cow, Bessie, is being painted bright green. And the boy who is holding the paint pot so eagerly and proudly is not other than the little boy with the red, etc. The schoolmaster will presently go to bed, saying to himself that times are getting better. Not till morning will the schoolmaster know what Hollow Eve has brought him and all the village’s best and loudest laughers.

The town constable comes next. He is on duty in the street, but keeping mostly an eye to his own property. On one of his periodic returns to his own cottage he finds his front gate gone. Simply removed from its hinges. Well, it is no time to go looking for the gate. It will turn up in the morning astride somebody’s roof or in the village’s tallest maple tree. But there is a sense of relief in the fact that the gang has done its worst.

But there was no limit to the gang’s worst. Boys are great practical psychologists. They, from the hiding place they have chosen in the town constable’s own corn patch, watch him go off upstreet to attend the care of other people’s property which he feels he has perhaps been neglecting.

When he is gone they take the constable’s buggy, which is one of the eyesores of the town, with the stuffings falling out of the faded green cushions and no two wheels in line, and they hoist it to the roof of his own barn.

It is one of the mysteries of engineering how easy it is to get a buggy on top of a barn at night and how hard it is to get it down off a barn in daylight.

And in elevating the buggy to the top of the barn it is that same excitable little boy who in selected, because of his light weight and good muscle, to shinny up first and pass the rope to the haulers on the far side.

Now to the deacon, with the wiry whiskers growing upwards out of his collar.

There was, and still is, doubtless, a shed which used to be the butt of all jokers of all ages to Hollow Eve. The deacon, remembering past years, had decided that this time he would catch the culprits who upset his property red-handed. So he secreted himself in this building, in hiding, to await the coming of the marauders whose idea of fun it was to upset the edifice, every Hollow Eve, much to the chagrin of the pompous deacon.

But the deacon was observed, by some little hoy, as he crept stealthily out to hide himself. And the little boy runs with the glad tidings to the gang, who are just retreating after having hoisted the town constable’s buggy aloft.

The gang approached the deacon’s back yard with unexampled silence. Only half a dozen of the bigger boys were permitted to perform the actual major operation.

They upset the edifice, with the deacon in it, door down!

And since the deacon lived, as a rule, with a maiden sister, she, on hearing the frantic shouts of the imprisoned worthy, had to go and get neighbors – gossipy neighbors, neighbors who love such a jest from generation unto generation – to help her free her outraged brother.

And somewhere in the guerilla band which stood a distance in the dark and watched the men with lanterns helping the deacon to escape from his plight, was this same small boy.

He has grown up and old. Here he sits, a portly old gent, shaking his after-dinner paper angrily, while half a dozen tame little boys, outside on the prim pavement, yell feebly by way of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve!

Classic Pranks in Toronto

Back in the days when Toronto was a small city, largely recruited from the villages round about, the students of the university took the lead in celebrating Hollow Eve and one of the pastimes of the less fortunate youth of the city was to come down to the grounds to watch the students burning the picket fences, firing the old Crimea cannon which stood in the grounds as souvenirs of a war in which Canada took no part, and disporting themselves generally.

There are two peak moments in the history of Varsity Hollow Eves. The one is the time the students got a cow up into the Old Grey Tower of University College. The stair is a steep and winding one. How they gained entrance to the college, where they got the cow, how on earth they forced the heavy beast to climb the winding staircase is a mystery never solved. How they got it down is another story. They had a gang of abattoir workers come and take charge, after all the professors of engineering and mathematics had given the problem up. There was talk of slaughtering the poor cow and taking it out in quarters of beef. But at last they rigged up some tackle and eased the amazed co-ed down the way she had come.

Another and less savory exploit was the hanging of a human “subject” from the medical college on the hooks of a butcher shop at Carlton and Yonge streets. Those were the days when the butchers displayed half beeves all over their shop fronts, suspended from hooks.

Hollow Eve was also the occasion at Varsity for the stealing of those odd souvenirs with which students used to like to decorate their rooms. If ten students got a good stout fence post and leaning heavily on it, charged one of those iron horses which used to decorate all the main streets of Toronto as hitching posts, the iron horse would snap, and a perfectly good souvenir would go home with them. There was one group which succeeded in getting into the backyard of their boarding-house one of those octagon sheet metal cubby houses which the policemen used to have on the main corners to telephone in and in which to keep their raincoats. But the police heard about it from unfriendly neighbors and a scene resulted.

Largely those things that were an affront to the delicate feelings of students – painted orders to keep off the grass, or to “keep out of here,” or physicians’ door signs that were unnecessarily pompous. If any wealthy citizen decided to express his sense of art in a pair of iron deer or leaden cupids on his front lawn the students felt they had to take a hand.

Much of the worst taste of the Victorian age was thwarted by Hollow Eve in Toronto.

It is only in the past ten years or so that the self-imposed curfew has been in existence in Toronto, and in the name of child welfare children are put to bed at dusk. Hollow Eve parties were not what they are. They were children’s parties, and no one was too little to bob for apples in a wash tub or take one end of the taffy-pull, and the littlest ghosts you ever saw paraded the streets to ten o’clock, which was bed time for all, old and young, fairly and without discrimination.

Has anybody seen a tick-tack1 for years? The modern young mother does no sewing, and therefore there are no spools around for making tick- tacks. But in the other days Hollow Eve was no occasion for lovers to spoon, in the parlor. It was a shocking experience to be gazing, with all the world forgot, into your best girl’s eyes and to have the fierce and unexpected sound of a tick-tack on the window pane wipe out the illusion and fill you with embarrassment.

The twentieth century has taken the mystery out of many things. The scientists have revealed many mysteries of disease. The engineers have solved space. There is no mystery now in hearing voices from Virginia and songs from Los Angeles. And society has kept pace with science. The girls dress mystery away. Our daily lives are revealed to all the world in, a thousand ways.

And even the pretense of mystery that was left for the children, one of two days in the year, has been crowded out.

So if the door bell rings answer it.

It will probably be the boy with The Star Weekly.

Editor’s Notes: Pre-World War Two, Halloween was not as popular a holiday in North America. Treat-or-treating was not established, and the holiday was more known for kids playing pranks as indicated in the story. Costumes could be worn, and some adults might have had parties.

  1. A tick-tack is defined as a “a contrivance used by children to tap on a window from a distance”. I’m not sure what it may have looked like. ↩︎