Monday, February 9, 2015

"We're gonna burn the witch!" - A Halloween Memory

   Many years ago there was a story in my home town paper about a neighborhood Halloween celebration that a few families tried to arrange that drew fire from others as for -- lack of any sensible definition -- "politically incorrect".  The celebration involved the ceremonial burning of a fabricated witch in effigy as part of the Halloween program. There were concerns of "Satanism", devil worship and all manners of religious paranoia that pressured the city to not grant permits for the event and essentially killing the idea.

   The story stimulated a twinge of nostalgia concerning my father Robert A. Ornberg, who passed away in 1958, who began the tradition in our hometown in the mid 1950’s.

   Dad was wondering aloud, I recall, just before Halloween how the neighborhood kids needed something else to do besides soaping his windows. Instead of planning to call the police every half hour, he contacted a few neighborhood and business friends and got to work.

   First he persuaded several local merchants and businessmen to donate various treats such as candy, ice cream, cookies, punch and a few toys for prizes. As an Advertising Manager for a local manufacturer, he was able to assemble a few 16 mm cartoons, a projector, a long extension cord and a large bed sheet. Others gathered what seemed like every empty cardboard box in the city, old newspapers and some old wooden skids.

   Then, on Halloween Eve, I remember peeking down into the basement as Dad meticulously assembled, from 2 by 2’s, bunched up newspapers, black crepe paper, cardboard -- along with a warlock’s imagination – the biggest, ugliest and scariest looking witch that a 7 year-old had ever seen mounted on a long wooden pole.

   Flyers had been hand delivered throughout the neighborhood for several days. On Halloween, hundreds of costumed kids with their parents gathered at the old Community House, located at a neighborhood park. There were games to play, treats to consume and prizes to win. As it grew dark, the sheet nailed to side of the small field house lit up with the images of Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Then it was time for the parade.

   With Dad at the head of the crowd carrying the paper and wooden witch high overhead, the entire crowd followed Dad and the witch out of the park and marched through the neighborhood. Someone began the chant, “We’re gonna burn the witch! We’re gonna burn the witch,” a few times which quickly ignited the entire crowd chanting in unison as they moved from block to block. After snaking through much of the neighborhood we all returned to the park where the cardboard witch was propped up at the top of the large pile of cardboard and wood. With ample ceremony, and a fire engine and crew standing by nearby, the pile was put to the torch.

   The excitement that had been building all evening exploded in cheers and hollers as flames consumed the evil make-believe witch, and seemingly burning away all the ideas of pranks and youthful mayhem as well. Everyone finally went home feeling like Halloween was indeed a holiday.

   I know there must be a few other “kids” out there that remember this tradition as fondly as I do.

   Dad sure had a way of coming up with the right idea at the right time. 


  1. Was all this in Des Plaines? I remember taking part in something that sounds much like that as a very little tyke around 50+ years ago or so. It was centered at the Cumberland Field House at the end of Warrington Road.

    1. You nailed it. The very same one. :-)

    2. I was at a handful of them! Very fond memories!

  2. My father and The Boy scout troop 227 were involved in the early 70's, very fond memories for me.
    I remember the Mobile gas station at Golf and Wolf got involved a few times and we used their tow truck to hold the witch up as it was driven around Cumberland Terrace. Down Warrington to Harvey left to Cumberland Parkway then Columbia back to Warrinton and over to Harding and last Washington before returning to the Cuberland Terrace park. After the burning we would have a costume contest with cookies and cider afterwards.