19d-Growing up Italian-American: Halloween through the generations

Illustration from “Tippety Witchit’s Halloween” originally appearing in “My Book House” ed. by Olive Beaupre Miller.

Introduction

Uncle Sammy, Antoinette Serrapere and I share our experiences of celebrating Halloween as we grew-up in the Italian-American communities of our home towns.  This holiday is of Celtic origin and was not celebrated by our ancestors in Italy.  However, as the descendants of Italian immigrants grew-up in America they participated in the Halloween festivities through school and community sponsored activities.  The preparation of this posting offered us an opportunity to see how the participation has changed with each generation.

For children, Halloween is a point during the year when anything and everything can happen.  Ghosts might walk through the house.  The departed might appear in their dreams.  A generous neighbor might put $1 in each goodie bag.  The big kid who loves to scare the younger children might be waiting around the corner ready to shout “Boo!”  We shared expectations similar to these.

The celebration of Halloween has not remained fixed throughout the decades since our ancestors came to the United States.  By recording our memories of this holiday we found that it continues to grow and change.  The ways in which it does reflect the times we live in.  As an example, it was more common for children to go from house-to-house with their friends in the 1960s.  Today many children are accompanied by their parents to go trick-or-treating at planned get-togethers with neighbors or friends.  This development has arisen out of concerns for child safety.

Relationship Notes

Josie and Sabato Serrapede were the parents of Sammy (Sabbatino) and Emily Leatrice Serrapede.

EmilyAnn Frances May is their granddaughter through Emily Leatrice.  Sammy is her maternal Uncle.

Antoinette Serrapere is a member of the Serrapede family from Agropoli.  She is the daughter of Nicholas and Rosemary (nee Calhoun) Serrapere.  Her Grandparents Cosimo and Anna Marie (nee Botti) Serrapere immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the early 20th century.  Antoinette’s family lived in Wilmerding as she grew up.

Serrapere is a variation of the surname Serrapede.

Dyker Heights:  1930s

  • My Mom, Emily L. Serrapede, never spoke at great length about Halloween.  She did mention that when she was growing up the emphasis amongst the first generation of Italian immigrants was on All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd).  She remembered that November 2nd was a day when many people went to church to light a candle for their departed relatives and friends.
  • The three holidays were not observed in the Serrapede household when Mom grew up.  The family visited the cemeteries and took care of the graves of their departed relatives as time and weather permitted.  Prayers or devotions were offered up for the departed on the anniversary of the person’s passing.

Dyker Heights:  1940s-1950s

  • Uncle Sammy didn’t go to any costume parties but did enjoy trick or treating with his friends.  The boys he knew hung out and went in groups to the neighbors houses where they got goodie bags that contained some candy and many coins.
  • Some boys threw eggs at houses when nobody answered the door.  This was done later in the evening.
  • Josie never decorated the home for Halloween when they lived in the apartment at 66th Street.  Even when she bought her own house she did not decorate it.  But she did start preparing goodie bags for the children after the family moved into the house on 67th Street.  The children had to climb two flights of stairs to reach the front door.  Josie and Sam provided an additional treat for the children: they let them reach into the large penny jars they kept and take as many pennies as they could.
  • Josie’s birthday was on All Saint’s Day on November 1st.  She went to church as a way to give thanks for her life and her patron saint.
  • Uncle Sammy and Aunt Kathie were on vacation in Italy in the late 1990s.  In late October they were in Venice and did see some locals in costume.  The masks were striking.  Carnevale, which takes place before the start of Lent, is still the predominant celebration when Italians indulge in the love of masquerade.  But we think that the start of celebrating Halloween slowly began in Italy during the late 1990s as this account and others we’ve read on line tell us.

Dyker Heights:  Late 1950s-Early 1960s 

  • My first Halloween story came from one of the “My Book House” volumes Mom handed down to me.  She read to me the story of “Tippity Witchit’s Halloween.”  In this story a little black kitten experiences the spooky transformation of the landscape as Halloween night deepens.  In the morning the world returns to normal.  The drawings capture the mood of the eerie Halloween night.
  • I attended Public School 201 when it was an elementary school for grades K through 8.  When I started Kindergarten in 1958 and every year thereafter, our teachers had us draw pictures to decorate the classroom for Halloween and other holidays.  There was nothing gory or violent in the student drawings for Halloween.  Most of us were inspired by cartoon characters like “Casper, the Friendly Ghost” or monster movies like “The Mummy” or “Frankenstein”.  Our drawings contained such familiar Halloween figures as witches on brooms, black cats, scarecrows and Jack O’Lanterns.  After 4th grade we were transferred to P.S. 204 because of changes to the school.  At P.S. 204 we also continued to create drawings for the different holidays during the school year.
  • On 13th Avenue between 78th and 77th Streets were two candy stores.  Moe’s Candy Store sold Halloween masks and costumes in small quantities along with the best window decorations including a life size scarecrow that could be hung on the front door.  Bob’s Candy Store had a large assortment of penny candies and specialty items like orange harmonicas made from wax along with wax lips, candy corn, and candied apples.  Mom would shop for the costumes at Moe’s and get the goodie bags and candy corn at Bob’s.  Costume selection at Moe’s was simple:  if it fit, you bought it.  Otherwise there was always the fun of making your own costume.
  • All of our neighbors were generous in the treats they gave.  The Allen family next door let the children come into their living room where a large table was set up with apples, candy, jelly beans and pop-corn.  Other families let us take a handful of pennies from their coin jars.  Most families prepared little goodie bags with some candy, a piece of fruit and sometimes a few pennies.  After going around the block our trick or treat bags became very full!
  • At night the teenagers put masks on or old sheets and came to each house looking for goodies.  Dad was generous and gave each teenager two bags and made sure to include some nickels and dimes in each bag.  The teenagers did pull tricks on those who did not answer their doors.  They carried large pieces of colored chalk inside of thick cotton socks.  The front stoops were hit with the socks a couple of times and then the teenagers ran away.  In the morning these homeowners found splotchy chalk marks all over their stoops.
  • Boys sometimes went after the teenage girls who were known to be snippy and rude.  The girls got sprayed with shaving cream with the boys taking aim at their elaborately teased and lacquered bouffant hairstyles.
  • Beginning in 1966 the neighboring community of Bay Ridge instituted the Ragamuffin Parade.  It was created by a priest and parishioner from Our Lady of Angels Church.  The parade is still very popular.  Children from Bay Ridge dress up in store bought or home made costumes.  They accompany their parents on a walk along Third Avenue receiving admiration, goodies and taking photos during their walk through the community.
  • Store windows along the main shopping venues in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights are painted by local students with Halloween scenes as part of the Bay Ridge Community Council’s Halloween Art Contest.  The art contest began in the 1970s.
  • I didn’t learn about All Saints Day and All Souls Day until I began attending religious instruction classes in 2nd grade.  The nuns at St. Bernadette’s Shrine Church did not discourage us from trick or treating.  Instead they reminded us to listen to our parents and get home early.  The Sisters also admonished us not eat too much candy because we’d get sick.  We needed to be well so we went to church on November 1st and 2nd.  The Sisters were very persuasive and I ended up eating only a little candy each day.  Mom took me to church when she felt up to it.  If she didn’t we spent All Souls Day at home remembering the departed.  Sometimes Mom told me stories about her relatives who were no longer living.
  • In Dyker Heights children of all backgrounds celebrated Halloween.  Putting on a costume created a sense of adventure as well as an inability to know who was who.  We suspended our everyday frame of mind.  All concerns about who was who and where we came from vanished for a few hours.

Wilmerding, PA

Antoinette Serrapere grew up in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.  The YMCA, built by George Westinghouse in the early 20th century, hosted Halloween parties when she was a child in the 1960s.  When she was a teenager, the YMCA had a Haunted House party where one entire floor was decorated and used for a big Halloween event enjoyed by all who attended.  Of Halloween past Antoinette remembers that:

  • The children paraded through Wilmerding in their costumes and marched across a little bridge to the other side of town.  One year Antoinette dressed up as the Flying Nun and her sister dressed like pop-star Cher.  Antoinette said her sister won first prize that year.
  • Her Godfather’s wife, Louise, worked in the school cafeteria as one of the “lunch ladies.”  She made the best candied apples in town.  Antoinette always wanted to get to Louise’s house as early as possible before all the candied apples were gone.
  • Her dad, Nick Serrapere, was known to be a generous and warm person throughout Wilmerding.  On Halloween night the teenagers who came to the Serrapere household for trick or treating were never disappointed.  Nick made sure to give each teen several quarters in addition to candy when they came to the door.
  • The nieces and nephews resided in an area where the neighbors did not live close to each other.  On or near Halloween the family gave a party so they could dress up and enjoy their treats with the family.

Antoinette now lives in a small town near Wilmerding.  In her neighborhood one homeowner has gone all out to create a unique Halloween experience for visitors passing through the area he lives in.  The house is lit with purple and orange lights.  Music is playing while white mist rises up around the house from the dry ice carefully placed around the area.  Many people come just to see the house and take photos of it.  Antoinette’s daughter Jamie is dating a young man from the U.K.  He has taken many photos of the house to send back to his family.

Concluding thoughts

  • Amongst the Roman Catholics and the Italian-American community October 31st was the start of the holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
  • Halloween has developed into a community experience.  It provides opportunities for school children to express their creativity and develop their social skills through shared activities.  Children from different backgrounds get together to enjoy the positive activities encouraged by their school, community board and churches.
  • Wearing a costume enables a person to leave their everyday identity behind.  There is no attachment to a future or a past.  For a few hours all those in costume live in the present moment.  This is part of the excitement that is in the air on Halloween.
  • Thoughts of the links between life and death also create a space in which we take time to ask questions about the deeper meaning of our lives.  In recalling our beloved departed we enter a space between the worlds and revisit those we love.  Such recollection is one way of bringing the departed back into the forefront of our consciousness.

Resources

On-line version of the original “Tippity Witchit’s Halloween” complete with illustrations from the “My Book House” volume

Free PDF version available at this site, too.

“Tippity Witchit’s Halloween”

online version:  Orange County Kids Activities

http://blog.orangecountykidsactivities.com/tippity-witchits-halloween/

PDF version with illustrations:  http://blog.orangecountykidsactivities.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Tippity-Witchit.pdf

Resources

The History of the Ragamuffin Parade

September 28, 2015

http://www.heyridge.com/2015/09/the-history-of-the-ragamuffin-parade/

Students paint Halloween scenes on store windows

Ghosts, witches, skeletons greet shoppers

By Paula Katinas

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

October 28, 2014

http://www.brooklyneagle.com/articles/2014/10/28/students-paint-halloween-scenes-store-windows

Spooky store windows entice Bay Ridge shoppers

Students decorate shops for Halloween

By Paula Katinas

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

October 22, 2013

http://www.brooklyneagle.com/articles/spooky-store-windows-entice-bay-ridge-shoppers-2013-10-23-123000

Further Reading

Trick-or-treating

Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trick-or-treating

Halloween

Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween

Halloween in Italy

Life in Italy

Halloween : Not such a cliché in Italy

Submitted by admin on Sat, 10/18/2014 – 08:16

http://www.lifeinitaly.com/culture/halloween.asp

What my Grandmother knows about Halloween

By Martina, October 31, 2013

http://bulloanitalianblog.com/halloween-in-italy/

 

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