Friday, October 25, 2019

An Overview of Halloween Part Two

Early Halloween Traditions

While Pope Gregory I set November 1 as the date of All Saints' Day in the 8th Century CE, it is not until much later that various customs connected to Halloween are attested. In fact, our word Halloween is actually of rather recent vintage. Halloween can ultimately be traced back to the word All Hallows' Eve (also rendered All Hallows' Even). All Hallows Eve itself did not appear in print until about 1556. In Scottish English All Hallows Even would eventually be abbreviated to All Hallowe'en. By about 1745 All Hallowe'en would become simply Hallowe'en. Of course, since then the word has lost the apostrophe. 

Regardless, among the earliest customs mentioned with regards to Halloween is the ringing of bells throughout Allhallowtide. In a sermon at Blanford Forum in 1570, William Kethe mentioned that "...there was a custom, in the Papal times, to ring bells at Allhallow-tide for all Christian souls." During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I an injunction was actually made against the "...superfluous ringing of bells at Allhallowtide and at All Souls' Day, with the two nights next before and after..." 

Bonfires were another early custom mentioned with regards to Halloween. Of course, in Northern Europe bonfires had a long association with various holidays. The Third Council of Constantinople in  680 CE actually attempted to ban bonfires, "Those fires that are kindled by certain people on new moons before their shops and houses, over which also they use ridiculously and foolishly to leap, by a certain ancient custom...." The Third Council of Constantinople was apparently not successful, as bonfires continued to lit at such holidays as May Day and Midsummer (St. John's Day). Indeed, among the expenses listed of King Henry VII of England were those for making the bonfire for Midsummer Eve.

Just as bonfires were lit on May Day and Midsummer Eve in England, so too were bonfires lit on Halloween in Scotland. In 1772 Welsh naturalist and antiquarian Thomas Pennant wrote of the people of the Maylin, near Pitlochrie in Scotland, "Hallow Eve is also kept sacred; as soon as it is dark, a person sets fire to a bush of broom fastened round a pole, and, attended with a crowd, runs about the village. He then flings it down, heaps great quantity of combustible matters on it, and makes a great bonfire.” It is notable that Robert Burns's famous poem "Halloween" (which dates to 1785) is filled with fiery imagery. 

While bells and bonfires at Halloween have more or less fallen by the wayside, the wearing of costumes at Halloween is a custom that continues to be popular. At least from 16th Century Scotland there was the custom of guising, whereby young men would go in disguise from house to house singing songs or reciting verses in exchange for gifts of food. While the custom sounds like it could be the direct ancestor of trick or treating, it must be stressed that there is no direct link between the two customs. 

Another custom that would persist into modern times is that of Halloween pranks. One of the earliest references to pranks being pulled at Halloween occurs in John Mayne's poem "Halloween" (published in 1780), "What fearfu' pranks ensue!" In his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (published i 1808) under the entry for "Candle and Castock" Scottish antiquarian John Jamieson describes a turnip lantern (essentially an early jack o' lantern--more in a little bit) that was used by youngsters to frighten people on Halloween. 

Divination would also be a Halloween custom that would survive into modern times. Indeed, in his poem "Halloween" Robert Burns described how single young people went out hand in hand into the cabbage patch to pull the first stalk they saw. The size and shape of the stalk was thought to be indicative of what his or her future spouse would look like. Although most people today probably do not think of Halloween as a particularly romantic holiday, much of the divination practised on Halloween tended to deal with marriage. 

While many of Halloween's customs can be traced back to the 17th and 18th Centuries, the carving of jack o' lanterns in connection with the holiday would seem to be of more recent vintage. While the use of vegetables to make lanterns goes back a few centuries, they would not be called "jack o' lanterns" for some time, nor would they be identified with Halloween for some time either. References to such lanterns as part of a Halloween celebration would not appear in print until John Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Dictionary under his above cited entry for "Candle and Castock". The first reference of such lanterns as "jack o' lanterns" would not appear in print until a few years later, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's review of Charles Maturin's play Bertram in 1817.

While various traditions associated with Halloween appear to be of relatively recent vintage the idea of Halloween as a time when the dead and other supernatural entities walk the earth appears to go back many centuries. While there seems to be little evidence for very much continuity between the Irish festival of Samhain and the modern holiday of Halloween, as mentioned earlier in the story Macgnímartha Finn ("The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) it said that the sídhe (the mounds that were home to the Aos Sí) were always open on Samhain. As to Halloween itself, the traditional ballad "Tam Lin" is set at Halloween and deals with the rescue of Tam Lin from the Queen of the Fairies. It is believed to date back in some form to 1549. The traditional ballad "Allison Gross", about the efforts of the ugliest witch in the north county to win a man's heart, also references Halloween. It is believed to date to 1800. It should come as no surprise that one of the most famous early works about Halloween reference the supernatural. John Mayne's poem "Halloween" makes reference to bogles, fairies, and witches.

Halloween Comes to America

By the end of the 18th Century in Scotland Halloween was a well established holiday to which was attached a number of customs. This was not the case with the British Colonies in North America. While All Saints' Day was recognised as a holy day by Anglicans and Catholics living in the Colonies, Halloween itself was not widely observed. This would remain true in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. In fact, for much of the 19th Century when American newspapers mention Halloween at all, it is as a peculiarly Scottish holiday.

This would begin to change when Scots began to immigrate en masse to the United States in the 19th Century. The year 1846 saw the beginning of the Highland Potato Famine, during which time potato crops in Scotland were destroyed by potato blight year after year. Ultimately the Highland Potato Famine would last around ten years, finally coming to an end in 1856. During this period many Highlanders moved from the Scottish Highlands. Some simply moved to the Scottish Lowlands. Others would immigrate to Australia, Canada, and even the United States.

Quite naturally, the Scots brought their Halloween celebrations with them. Initially celebrated only among Scottish and Irish communities in the United States, the celebration of Halloween eventually spread throughout American society. By the 1880s many Americans were holding Halloween parties. For instance, under the "City News" section of November 1 1883 issue of the Logansport Pharos Tribune from Logansport, Indiana, it is mentioned that, "Miss Emma Rosentbail held a very pleasant Halloween party at her home last evening. By the 1890s Halloween parties had become so commonplace throughout the United States that issues of some newspapers might contain references to multiple parties. The November 1 1891 issue of the Helena Independent from Helena, Montana mentioned no less than five separate Halloween parties held in the area.

While Halloween parties were a welcome way for Americans to celebrate the holiday in the late 19th Century, a less welcome custom brought over from Scotland was that of Halloween pranks. The November 5 1895 issue of The Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette from Cedar Falls, Iowa mentions an odd prank by some boys in which they tied a light wagon behind the Burlington Passenger No. 5.  The train was a half hour late as a result of the prank. The October 31 1893 issue of The Bloomington Leader from Bloomington, Illinois mentions that the previous year Halloween pranks had cost the town  $800.

Sally Benson tells of a rather odd prank in her semi-autobiographical vignette "October, 1903" (one of the vignettes in her series 5135 Kensington), first published in the November 1 1941 issue of The New Yorker and included in the 1942 book Meet in St. Louis. Quite simply, individuals would be hit with flour and then said to be "killed". This custom would later be portrayed in the musical based on the book, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

By the 1900s Halloween was so widely celebrated in the United States that Halloween merchandise became available. The 1900s saw the first Halloween cards printed. The decade also saw the emergence of paper Halloween decorations. Many of these paper decorations were manufactured in Germany during the decade, although American companies would soon jump on the Halloween bandwagon.  The Dennison Manufacturing Company started manufacturing paper Halloween decorations, including jack o' lanterns, in the 1900s. Their Halloween decorations were so popular that in 1909 Dennison published its first Dennison's Bogie Book for Halloween, which was a guide for decorating for the holiday. Another edition of The Dennison's Bogie Book was published in 1912. Except for the years of World War I, it would be published annually until 1934. Another American company well known for their paper Halloween decorations, including jack o' lanterns, is the Beistle Company. Founded in 1900, the Beistie Company began making Halloween decorations in 1920. The Beistle Company continues to manufacture paper Halloween decorations to this day.

It was in the 1920s that a new custom emerged that is now so strongly associated with Halloween that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn't practised on the holiday. Trick-or-treating is a custom whereby children in costume go from house to house asking for treats with the phrase, "Trick-or-treat". The implication of the phrase is that if the children are not given treats, then they will play a trick (a Halloween prank) on the residents of the house. Trick-or-treating resembles such earlier customs as souling on All Souls' Day in England and guising on Halloween in Scotland, but a direct line cannot be traced from trick-or-treating to either of them. It appears to have entirely developed in the 20th Century.

Indeed, the first known appearance of the phrase "trick-or-treat" in print is in the November 4 1927 issue of the Herald (published in Lethbridge, Alberta) in the article "'Trick or Treat' is the Demand". From Alberta, Canada the custom of trick-or-treating apparently spread to parts of the American Northwest and West, as evidenced by articles on the custom in 1934 in newspapers in Portland, Oregon and Helena, Montana. As the Thirties progressed, trick-or-treating made its way east. A story on trick-or-treating appeared in the October 31 1938 issue of The Hammond Times in Indiana. By the early Forties trick-or-treating had reached the East Coast. There was an article on it in the October 24 1942 issue of The Cumberland Evening Times in Maryland.

It is difficult to say precisely how the custom of trick-or-treating came about, but it seems likely it emerged from the custom of Halloween pranks. At some point in the Twenties some youngsters in Canada, perhaps observing the shakedown techniques of the gangster of the era, realised they could get treats by threatening tricks if they did not get them. Quite naturally, such a custom would prove popular with children and so it spread from Canada into the United States. It is notable that many of the early articles on trick-or-treating are somewhat negative in tone, many of them treating it as a form of extortion. As time passed, many articles began to appear that were much more sympathetic in tone to trick-or-treating. Quite simply, as trick-or-treating grew in popularity, there was also a decrease in the number of pranks on Halloween. Over the course of the 20th Century Halloween pranks would decrease to the point that they were relatively rare.

Of course, in order for children to trick-or-treat, they must have costumes to wear. In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century nearly all Halloween costumes were home-made. As the 20th Century progressed, various companies would begin manufacturing costumes for Halloween. It was in 1920 that Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, a company that originally made flags, began making Halloween costumes commercially available. The J. Halpern Company, later known as Halco, also entered the Halloween costume market. Perhaps the best known name in Halloween costumes in the 20th Century was Ben Cooper, Inc., which began making Halloween costumes in 1937. Collegeville, Halco, and Ben Cooper would dominate the Halloween costume market for the better part of the 20th Century.

In fact, Collegeville, Halco, and Ben Cooper would be partly be responsible for a shift in Halloween costume over the course of the 20th Century. In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, most costumes tended to be spooky in nature, with people dressing up as ghosts, witches, and devils, with policemen, firemen, and clowns (the non-scary kind) being the exception to the rule. It was in the Thirties that companies began manufacturing costumes of licensed characters. From 1935 to 1938 Halco manufactured costumes based on the characters from Thimble Theatre, including Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy. In the late Thirties Collegeville put out a Lone Ranger costume. Ben Cooper held the licenses to make costumes of the various Walt Disney characters (including Snow White from the blockbuster movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).  Following World War II, the licensing of characters would begin to play a bigger and bigger role in the production of commercial Halloween costumes, to the point that the majority of costumes made by Ben Cooper and Collegeville were characters from movies, TV shows, and comic books.

While children in the post-war era might elect to dress as Hopalong Cassidy or Batman rather than a ghost or goblin, Halloween has never entirely lost its association with the supernatural. From the early days one has to suspect that many individuals elected to visit houses believed to be haunted on Halloween. The 20th Century saw the emergence of what is called "haunted attractions", which try to simulate the experience of going through a haunted house. The first such haunted attraction was the Orton and Spooner Ghost House in Liphook, East Hampshire. It opened in 1915.

Haunted attractions that were open only during the season of Halloween began to emerge in the United States in the 1930s. An article on a Halloween party from the November 2 issue of the Kingsville Record in Kingsville, Texas mentions that "...the youngsters were taken through the haunted house by the Halloween witch." That having been said, haunted attractions would not really take off until the 1950s. The late Fifties saw several such attractions open in California, including the San Mateo Haunted House in 1957 (sponsored by the Children’s Health Home Junior Auxiliary) and the San Bernardino Assistance League Haunted House in 1958. The Sixties saw several haunted attractions open across the country, including the Children’s Museum Haunted House in Indianapolis. First opened in 1964, it has become the longest running "haunted house" in the United States. Such haunted attractions open during the Halloween season are often fundraisers for various organisations, such as the Jaycees, the March of Dimes, and so on.

By the 1950s Halloween was already a very popular holiday in the United States. It was also highly commercialised. In addition to the paper Halloween decorations and commercially produced Halloween costumes that had been produced for years, the Fifties saw Halloween goods made from plastic emerge. It was during the Sixties that blown mould plastic lawn ornaments, including several dedicated to Halloween, peaked in popularity. Plastic, Halloween merchandise from candy containers to flash lights continue to be made to this day.

Since then Halloween has grown in popularity to where it is the second most popular holiday in the United States. That is not to say that the holiday has not continued to change and evolve. Sometime in the mid-Nineties a new variation on trick-or-treating emerged. Trunk-or-treat is a community event whereby children go trick-or-treating from car to car in a parking lot (usually one belong to a school, city hall, church, or other community building). Precisely where trunk-or-treat first started, much less how it came about, is not known. That having been said, it would explode in popularity in 2006 and has grown in popularity ever since. It seems as if it has been a particularly attractive alternative to traditional trick-or-treating  for those churches that view Halloween as a "pagan" festival and trick-or-treating with it (at such churches children are encouraged to dress as characters from the Bible).


To degree the origins of Halloween are shrouded in mystery. Both the Celtic and Germanic peoples had pagan festivals around the same date, but it is difficult to say that they had much in the way of continuity with Halloween. It is unclear when or why many of the customs now associated with Halloween emerged. What we do know is that it was a particularly popular holiday in Scotland and that Scots immigrating to the United States brought it to North America. Since that time it has grown in popularity and is even growing in popularity elsewhere in the world. It is difficult to say how Halloween may evolve in the future, but one thing seems certain. It will most certainly continue to be a very popular holiday.

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