I came home and discovered that some vanished delivery man had left a package on my front porch, and nearly pulled my front gate off its hinges in the process. I love the orderly rank of pickets on my fence rails and their continued march across the gate. The notable sag produced by the separation at the top hinge made it look like a boxer who’d staggered back to his corner to recover from a decisive blow.
While I was screwing the hinge back in place a little breeze picked up – not quite a foretaste of fall, but enough of a reminder that Halloween is almost at hand. Looking at the gate I was reminded of the one-night-only sanctioned hooliganism that used to prevail in late 19th and early 20th century cities and towns on the night before Halloween.
This was Gate Night, and children and teenagers were allowed to roam the streets and roads looking for (and finding) mischief. The centerpiece of the anti-celebration was the building of a bonfire, fueled by gates from all the picket fences in the neighborhood.
Older children contributed doors, barrels, packing crates and the occasional outhouse. Halloween’s eve was in every sense a diabolical evening. The custom seems to have died out, or been done away with by local ordinances by the 1930s, when the homeless were gleaning scrap wood for more purposeful campfires.
There is a vivid portrayal of Gate Night in Vincente Minnelli’s film “Meet me in St. Louis.” The child actress Margret O’Brian (who was famous for being able to cry on cue) is a participant in a virtual child-riot and the viewer’s guide to the carnage. I saw the film as a boy with my mother and father who surprised me with knowing smirks growing into laughter. I thought the scene was very confusing. Where were the police? Where was the fire department? Where were everyone’s disapproving parents? Was my utterly respectable jury-foreman father a delinquent? Well, he was. And my mother, too. They explained that they’d made a bonfire or two themselves, as did all their playmates and neighbors. Everyone knew this was going to happen and prepared accordingly. If a homeowner was concerned about his gate, he simply took it off its hinges and stored it until the threat had passed.
Parents were usually lurking nearby with buckets of water in case things got out of hand. Tolerated misbehavior was viewed as a method of releasing social pressures on children and adolescents. Everyone knew the rules governing the lapse in order, and generally everyone knew how to play their part, straying just so far and no farther from more normative behavior.
This year I’ll be waiting for the more than 600 trick-or-treaters I see at my gate every year. I might just put the gate in the basement for now.
- Michael Guarino