- Historic Sites
From its birth in pagan transactions with the dead to the current marketing push to make it a “seasonal experience,” America’s fastest-growing holiday has a history far older (and far stranger) than does Christmas itself
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
But America was becoming a more uniform nation. Railroads, the telegraph, and magazines were blurring sectional differences. In 1871 women in every part of the country, at least women of the middle class, opened their issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book and read one of the first articles published about Halloween. Other magazines and newspapers followed with stories, poems, illustrations, and suggestions for celebrations. But a funny thing happened to Halloween on its way to national prominence. It severed its ties with restless spirits, destructive pranks, and, perhaps most important, working-class Irish Catholic traditions and became a proper Victorian lady—safe, sinless, and romantically inclined. By the end of the century, it was so intimately associated with polite social gatherings and innocent amorous pursuits that celebrants were hanging mistletoe on October 31.
IT IS A PLASTIC HOLIDAY, MOLDED AND MAULED TO SERVE EACH GENERATION.
Halloween entered the twentieth century stripped of occult associations and religious significance. Populist city fathers with boosterish hearts, alert for ways to promote community spirit and Americanize a motley immigrant population, recognized its potential. Allentown, Pennsylvania, sponsored the first annual Halloween parade, and in 1921 Anoka, Minnesota, held the first citywide party. Halloween had left the parlor, taken to the streets, and discovered its nationality. Shortly after World War I, a young Ernest Hemingway wrote a sketch in which the hero, lying wounded in an Italian hospital, hears the sound of the armistice celebration and remembers neither the Fourth of July nor, despite the November date, Thanksgiving, but Halloween at home.
Now that the holiday had got another whiff of fresh air, the scene was set for the practice that more than any other symbolizes contemporary Halloween. Medieval villagers had begged soul cakes and Irish immigrants had extorted handouts, but not until the 1920s did costumed children begin going from door to door to trick-or-treat. One of the first mentions of the practice appears in a 1920 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal , and by the 1950s it was an established ritual, although one Depression-bred student of the subject insists that in North Dakota in 1935 no one had ever heard of it and chides later generations for having “sold their rights to rebellion for some sugar in expensive wrappings.”
Not all the young made such a craven deal, however. If the Victorian age had denatured the more raffish aspects of the holiday, it had not wholly obliterated them. While some youths had lingered under the mistletoe in the parlor, others had continued to roam the countryside on the lookout for unguarded livestock or remaining outhouses, and even today many law-abiding males of a certain age remember that dressing up and going from house to house was fine for girls, but boys were looking for trouble. Many of them found it. As families moved to the city, the old purportedly innocent high jinks gave way to more serious vandalism. Youths slashed tires, stole gas caps, and rang false fire alarms, all in the spirit of good fun. In Queens, New York, in 1939, a thousand windows were broken.
Just as city officials were trying to find ways to channel all this youthful energy into constructive civic action, like raking lawns and mending fences, America entered World War II, and pranks and vandalism became sabotage and treason. The Chicago City Council abolished Halloween and called on the mayor to make October 31 Conservation Day. “Letting air out of tires isn’t fun anymore,” wrote the superintendent of the Rochester, New York, schools. “It’s sabotage. Soaping windows isn’t fun this year. Your government needs soaps and greases for the war…. Even ringing doorbells has lost its appeal because it may mean disturbing the sleep of a tired war worker who needs his rest.”