History: Halloween’s origin and evolution in America in the 20th century

With Halloween being only three weeks away, I was curious as to how the various items and activities we associate with Halloween came about. This is what my research uncovered.

Samhain depiction. (Courtesy Wikimedia: Public Domain-author unknown)

Pagan Rituals and the Catholic Church’s influence

Halloween’s origin can be traced back over 2,000 years. Most historians point to Samhain, a Celtic “pagan festival,” which marked summer’s end, and the beginning of the “darker” half of the year, to be Halloween’s precursor.

After the summer harvest was completed, farmers along with Druid priests lit massive bonfires and prayed together.

Celtic families believed that the barrier between the physical and the spiritual world could be breached during Samhain. Celts ritualistically dressed up as animals or monsters in hopes that fairies would not be tempted to kidnap them.

Yet on the lighter side, hiding underneath costumes, villagers would play tricks on each other, and blame it on the spirits. In that way, masks and cover-ups became a means to get away with things. That fact continued throughout Halloween’s evolution.

By the 9th century, the Catholic Church and Christianity had spread into the Celtic lands, and its rituals of All Saints’ Day (a day for commemorating all the saints of the church) started to blend into some of the older Celtic traditions.

In 1000 A.D. the Catholic Church declared Nov. 2 as All Soul’s Day, (a day during which the church honored the dead). Historians contend that the church was most likely attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with its own holiday.

Over the centuries the three holiday observances — Samhain, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day — consolidated into one holiday: Halloween. Note: The Catholic Church still observes All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

Middle Ages and early Trick-or-Treating

Early forms of trick-or-treating emerged in the Middle Ages in England and Ireland. On All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, poorer people dressed up in costumes symbolizing the souls of the dead, and went to the houses of wealthier families, and received pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the resident’s dead relatives. The practice came to be known as “souling.”

From the 15th century onward, peasants wore scary costumes to symbolize winter spirits or demons, and would sing songs, act out short plays and perform tricks in exchange for food or treats.

1800s: Jack-o-lanterns appear

The act of carving faces into vegetables as a part of Halloween began in the 1800s in Ireland and Scotland.

In an Irish legend, a man named “Stingy Jack” initially tricks the devil. But the devil subsequently gets even, and Jack’s punishment is that he has to roam the earth forever, with only a burning coal inside a turnip to light his way.

Folks in Ireland and Scotland began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into potatoes, turnips and other vegetables. Once carved, they were placed in windows or outside doors to scare away Stingy Jack or other evil spirits.

An Irish carved turnip. (Photo Courtesy Smithsonian Digital Collection)

1850s: The Irish Potato Famine — Halloween comes to the America

In the earliest days of America, Halloween was not celebrated. Outside of a few places in the South, and in Catholic-dominated Maryland, the country was primarily Protestant. But as the first wave of Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1850s, they brought along their Halloween traditions, superstitions, and costumes.

Once the rituals around Halloween entered into American culture, it spread quickly during the next century. By the late 1800s, especially in rural areas, people embraced the pagan roots of the holiday, and its association with death.

People wore homemade scary costumes made out of whatever materials they could find. The idea of being totally disguised was a key element in the early days.

Late 1880s Halloween costumes. (Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress)

1900 – Bobbing for Apples

I remember as a young child going to a church Halloween party, and putting my face in a tub of ice-cold water, trying to grab an apple with my teeth.

For us it was just a fun event, but early in the 1900s in some areas, it was believed to be a foreteller of who a young lady might marry. A young woman would covertly mark an apple, and drop it in the tub. Then, whichever young man successfully secured the young woman’s apple in his teeth was thought to be a potentially strong candidate for marriage.

Howard Chandler Christie’s “Halloween” painting. (Courtesy of Wikimedia. Image is in the public domain)

Early 1900s – A variety of Halloween pranks emerge

The Irish and Scottish immigrants celebrated in much the same way as they had done in their homelands, especially when it came to pulling pranks on their neighbors or townspeople.

The most common pranks included putting farmers’ wagons or livestock on barn roofs, tipping over outhouses, stealing sections of fencing or gates, and tearing up vegetables in backyard gardens. By the early 1900s physical assaults, vandalism and even overt acts of violence were common occurrences on Halloween.

A cartoon depicting a common Halloween prank. (Courtesy Scranton Times Tribune 1910 Digital File)

Edmonds residents were apparently victims of a variety of pranks, as Mayor James Brady stated in the Edmonds Tribune Review of Oct. 25, 1910: “Halloween mischief will not be tolerated. Offenders will be fined and punished accordingly.”

1920s – Costume and masquerade balls become popular

1924 Halloween masquerade costumes. (Courtesy University of Wisconsin Digital Collections)

From approximately 1915 through the late 1920s, people and organizations held annual Halloween masquerade parties for both adults and children.

Costume preparation often started two months ahead of the event as there were often prizes awarded. The party was a time for a town’s citizens to come together before the winter months arrived. The prizes were donated by local merchants for various costumes and assorted skills.

An article on the front page of the Nov. 1, 1919, Edmonds Tribune Review was headlined: “Masque Ball Big Success.”

The article said “the biggest affair of the season of nature was given last Saturday evening when the Edmonds Civic Club gave a masquerade ball at the Edmonds Opera House.”

The affair was widely advertised and people, both young and old flocked from far and wide by the score to partake of and witness the affair. Conservative estimates place the number at four hundred.

At 12 o’clock all the watches were turned back one hour to conform to the change from the “Daylight Saving Plan” to the old time, thus giving one more hour for festivities before the Sabbath morning.”

In order to make the affair a success the merchants of the town contributed prizes for various things, as best masked couple, fanciest costume, scariest costume, and best waltzers.”

Despite a number of parties and balls being available, pranks and vandalism were present every Halloween. In the Edmonds Tribune Review there were warnings almost every year, and pleas by citizens to stop the property damage. The following poem appeared in the Oct. 22, 1925 issue of the paper.

Photo by Byron Wilkes (Courtesy Sno-Isle Genealogical Society)

1930s – Halloween parades and the first mass produced costumes appear

In the early 1930s many communities had Halloween parades. The thinking was: If we have a parade, and have the community’s energy spent on organizing, and running the parade, it will help cut down on vandalism. During the same time period costumes became less scary, as commercially made costumes like Charlie Chaplin, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie and Mickey Mouse were available for the first time.

A photo of a 1934 parade. (Courtesy Anoka, Minnesota Museum’s digital files)

One unique item came into prominence during this time: the stick lantern. It had a jack-o-lantern on the end of a wooden stick. The jack-o-lantern was normally made out of tin, and had a burning candle inside, so that it could act as a lantern in nighttime parades.

A early-1900s tin stick lantern. (Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian)

— Author’s Note: In my research, I didn’t find any reference to a Halloween parade occurring in Edmonds.

1935 – Haunted Houses and corn mazes appear

In the mid 1930s, both haunted houses and haunted corn mazes appeared upon the American scene. It is believed that the Great Depression was the root cause of this phenomenon. The dire economic times had resulted in even higher incidents of violence and vandalism.

Parents were afraid to have their children running around the streets at night. As a result, haunted houses and trails through corn fields were created to help keep the kids off the street.

1950s – Post WWII: Halloween becomes more kid focused

With the baby boom, and the growth of suburban neighborhoods, trick-or-treating became a main focal point of Halloween for many families. Halloween became the largest holiday for many candy manufacturers, surpassing both Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But many of the treats in the early 1950s were homemade.

In the Oct. 14, 1952, Edmonds Tribune Review, a column heading read “It’s Halloween Month.” Written by Mabel Schoenhutz, it said: “Don’t forget those treats for the Halloween tricksters. Make popcorn balls and mix corn candy in with the popped corn for something different. Put the balls on sticks or around suckers. Try filling small bags with a miscellaneous mixture which will delight the children — a stick of gum, a sucker, a balloon, a cookie, apple and a mixture of candy. Welcome the youngsters away from pranks.”

In 1950s the number of children’s costumes that were purchased continued to grow year after year. They were largely mass produced, and represented characters that children had seen on television or heard on radio shows. Clown, princess, cowboy and Indian costumes were popular, as were individual characters like Frankenstein’s monster, Batman and Robin, and the Lone Ranger.

In the late 1950s municipalities encouraged adults and children to wear costumes without masks if they were attending a holiday party or trick-or-treating. The belief was that masks were a contributing factor to vandalism and mischief. If a person’s face was uncovered, they would be easier to identify, and thus less likely to cause trouble.

A poster for Halloween Candies in 1950. (Photo Courtesy Library of Congress)

1960s – Toilet Paper and a new prank surfaces

A new form of prank appeared in the early 1960s and remained popular for several years. It wasn’t a prank that caused much physical damage, but if done correctly, it was difficult to clean up.

The prank consisted of throwing rolls of toilet paper over a house, tree or bush. When tossed in a way where the roll of toilet paper would unfurl in midair, it left strands of toilet paper suspended on the objects below.

A 1960s Halloween prank. (Photo courtesy Pleasant Ridge News)

1970s – 1980s: Adult scary costumes return and fear of poisoned or dangerous treats

In the 1970s, the release of scary movies such as John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” and Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” spawned a resurgence of scary costumes amongst adults. In a way, Halloween costumes had come full circle back to its roots. Homemade costumes were prevalent, depicting zombies, vampires and monster characters from the movies.

Movie Poster: “The Nightmare on Elm Street.” (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Unfortunately, in both the 1970s and 1980s there were fears about poisoned Halloween candy. The worse case occurred in Texas in 1974, when a Texas man gave cyanide-laced pixie sticks to five children. Sadly, the only victim was the perpetrator’s son.

Apples were also reportedly laced with razor blades, and a rash of cyanide-laced Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s raised concerns about the dangers of eating candy or other items received while trick-or-treating.

Although the fear was somewhat overblown, to be safe, cities organized trick-or-treating events in downtown areas, where local merchants handled out treats. Many cities have carried on that tradition every Halloween, up to today. This is true in Edmonds.

The Edmonds Chamber of Commerce Halloween Trick-or-treat 2023 will be held from to 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31 in downtown Edmonds. Streets will be blocked off from 3-8 p.m. for safety reasons. Everyone — as well as their pets — is invited to wear a costume and join in the fun. More information can be found at the Chamber’s website (edmondschamber.com/events/main_events/halloween_trick_or_treat/)

Ninja Turtles treat-or-treaters in downtown Edmonds in 2016. (Photo courtesy: My Edmonds News. Photo by Larry Vogel)

— Author’s final thoughts: When I asked people what they think of when they hear the word “Halloween,” they responded “Pumpkins,” “a pillow case half-full of candy,” “ghosts,” “Ichabod Crane,” “witches and zombies,” “Freddy Krueger,” “costumes” and “black cats.” Regardless of your upbringing or age, Halloween conjures up a wide range of emotions and references.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Thanks go to the Sno-Isle Genealogical Society for their assistance in researching this article.

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