, Newburyport, MA

November 6, 2009

A prank rooted in cabbages

Bill Plante's North Shore

It was glorious evening, was that of Saturday past — one especially choreographed for trick or treat — a peaceful evening, plotted and planned for by children, their parents and householders awaiting them with baskets of candy.

I drove with special care through the South End's crossing streets to enjoy the moment with small groups of the questing young.

Somewhere along the route, a watchful father stepped into the street to stop me because some young, hidden from view, were about to cross it, and I thought of how far we had come from Cabbage Stump Night.

Halloween's roots lie deep in the culture of the ancient Celts when costumes and goodies were common. Roman legions were in the neighborhood and took some of their experiences back home with them. Pagan roots are said to have led to the concept of the living dead. For the religious, the hallowed evening occurs before All Saints Day.

History is what we made of the night before Halloween, and not Halloween itself, just as Beggars Night was the night before Thanksgiving.

The roots of its observance lay in the cabbage patches of our earlier time when such patches were ready at hand.

Cabbage Stump Nights are not well chronicled. New Jersey apparently had its "cabbage night'' when cabbages were hurled at houses, but ours bettered that because cabbages do not fit small hands for throwing.

There's no intention here to revive the night because we're plagued enough with things as they are, and any attempt to do so would bring the regulators out in full force. Besides, we'd be hard-pressed to find a cabbage patch anywhere .

Cabbages have a distinctive and proper root for Cabbage Stump Night because it is the rubbery equivalent of a Little League baseball bat — pliant, easy to grasp and packing a mighty wallop.

Proper celebration of Cabbage Stump Night was to make a stealthy advance upon a peaceful household, beat the bejabbers out of the side of the house or the front door and skedaddle as fast as you could in the getaway. The alternative to escape was to receive a belt in the behind from the householder.

There would be no damage to the house because of the softness of the root, but the racket inside the house was a shock wave.

Those of my seriously advanced age will recall tales from their elders of even more risky Halloween intrusions on the tranquility of the season by such extravagances as the dismemberment of farm wagons — all, of course, being the works of the risen dead.

My father told me his tale of such an ambitious enterprise that resulted in the removing of the wheels of a wagon, but that others had reconstructed one on the top of a barn. He was a teetotaler all his life but a grand story teller, and I have come to believe there must have been a different kind of jugged spirits about in the telling by others.

Happily, we have come to a more sedate time, but trick or treat is not without its disappointments, and not just for the young getting something other than the candy of their dreaming. There are homes with those ready and waiting with baskets of it for those who never appear.

But let us be thankful. There will always be children filled with hopes and dreams. It's really what keeps those of us fortunate either to have them or to greet them but linked to our own earlier time by memory, and that is a very special kind of nourishment.


Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is