This Is What Halloween Was Like for Martha Growing Up
Before she was the self-crowned Queen of Halloween, our founder was simply another trick-or-treating child bewitched by the spell of the holiday. "Halloween began on October 30," recalled Martha in her Remembering column from the September/October 1991 issue of Living. "We called it 'mischief night,' when windows were soaped, toilet paper strung from the tallest tree, and chalk graffiti scrawled everywhere."
The next day, everyone put the final touches on their costumes. "My mother and father were not unlike the other parents in our Nutley neighborhood when it came to Halloween," she said in her Remembering column from the Halloween 2000 special issue of Living. "Dad was an excellent conceptualist and visionary: He always came up with the costume themes, knowing which of his six children would make a great pirate, matador, clown, or flapper. And Mother? Well, her dressmaking skills were always put to good use during the couple of weeks preceding October 31, when she would drop every other sewing project and concentrate on costumes."
Those costumes, oftentimes, took weeks to design. "Of course, she had the help of the trunks in our attic that were brimming with great accessories—these had been given to us by our Aunt Clemy, who had access to vintage clothing through her job at a storage-warehouse facility," Martha explained in her Remembering column from the October 2003 issue of Living. "I remember the authentic matador jacket in white heavy silk, encrusted with gold braids, buttons, and trims, and so tiny that it only fit my brother Erik until he was 12. The black and crimson cape was extraordinary, too, and Erik whisked it to and fro with great aplomb. But the matador's breeches were nonexistent, so Mother made a pair; she also found white stockings and fashioned silver buckles for his shoes out of sheet aluminum."
Even when a button here or a strap there was missing, this resourcefulness by Martha's mother, Mrs. Kostyra, is what gave each of the children's costumes originality. "One year I was Little Bo Peep," Martha said in 2003, "with vintage pantaloons, a delicate batiste shirtwaist, and charming plaid knickers. Mom made a black silk vest that laced up the front, and Dad made my crook from a bent branch he found in a tree in our yard."
Of course, these get-ups didn't come without a snag or two. "We often borrowed characters from comic strips," she said in 2003. "I was a successful Daisy Mae to my brother's Li'l Abner one year, and we tried to figure out how to dress our younger siblings as Shmoos, lovable creatures also from Li'l Abner, but couldn't quite figure out the physics of getting the rotund little figures to walk."
As Martha and her siblings grew older, the transformation became less about costumes and more makeup. "I loved the years we dressed as flappers in beaded dresses and shapely shoes, our heads wound with scarves and our cheeks and foreheads adorned with spit curls," Martha said in 2003. "Aunt Clemy had found feather boas for us, and fur scarves, and we twirled our necklaces just as we observed in old movies and pictures."And when asked if Big Martha had found making these costumes a chore: "Absolutely not," she said. "It was fun!"
On the evening of Halloween itself, the children returned to school after dark all dressed up for the parade. "Masked and carrying candlelit cardboard lanterns, we promenaded around the playing field until each child (from kindergarten through grade six) had been seen by all the spectators," Martha described in 1991. "Prizes were given for the most original costume, the silliest, the most hideous, and the scariest." After the formalities, the children threw their lanterns into a huge pile in the center of a field. And, under the close supervision of Nutley's fire department, "they were set ablaze in the biggest bonfire we children had ever imagined."
The town ended their celebration with an hour of trick-or-treating, gratifying their hunger for something sweet. "We had a fabulous time," Martha said in 1991. "It was the one time of year when we children could act with abandon; we found naughtiness all the sweeter in its rarity—and were content the next day to be good little children again."