- 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
After V-J Day, children went back to trick-or-treating, youths to making trouble, and civic leaders to trying to head it off with community celebrations. Then, in 1950, a group of students from a Philadelphia-area Sunday school sent the $17 they had collected trick-or-treating to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and another holiday tradition was born. A newly rich and powerful America celebrated Halloween by lending a helping hand to less fortunate peoples around the world. But as the certainties of the fifties gave way to the rebellions of the sixties, which many Americans didn’t experience until the seventies, an innocent holiday became an opportunity for tragic accidents. In 1970 a five-year-old boy died from eating heroin, supposedly laced through his Halloween candy but actually filched from his uncle’s stash; a number of other scares, most of them unfounded, followed; and trick-or-treating began to decline. In the late 1980S, however, as President Reagan’s “morning in America” headed toward high noon, costumed children began venturing back onto the streets, and by 1999, 92 percent of America’s children were trick-or-treating. In fact, the spirit and intentions of the old pagan holiday of darkness had finally become so sunny that an affluent Indiana suburb began busing in less well-to-do children to share the goodies. Unfortunately, a glut of less affluent trick-or-treaters roaming the well-kept lawns soon led residents to move Halloween to another night, advertised only in the community association’s newsletter.) On a more entrepreneurial note, in 1987 a Canadian good neighbor began handing out stocks to the first 100 trick-or-treaters who showed up, some of whom, once the word was out, traveled more than 200 miles to beef up their portfolios. When the shares took a downturn as the rest of the market soared, the financial Good Samaritan began questioning the values he was fostering and put an end to the practice.
Halloween is a plastic holiday. Lacking the religious foundations of Christmas, Easter, and their cousins from other cultures, or the patriotic underpinnings of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, or even the single-minded sentimentality of the synthetic Mother’s Day (hatched by Anna Jarvis, an unmarried childless woman who never got over having abandoned her mother for a career, and subsequently seized upon by the flower, telegraph, and greeting-card industries), Halloween could be mauled and molded to fit the needs of each generation. Puritans, intent on survival in a new world and salvation in the next, ignored it. A hard-pressed immigrant population let off steam in its honor. A Victorian society tamed it. World Wars I and II and even Vietnam undermined it. And a newly powerful postwar nation gave it a social conscience. Even the masquerades chosen commented on the era in which they were worn. In 1973 Time magazine reported that first prize for the most frightening costume at a Halloween party went to a child wearing a Richard Nixon mask, and, in 1986, 49 schoolteachers marched as Imelda Marcos’s shoes. But perhaps the most significant sign of the times is contemporary Halloween’s strenuous consumerism.
The process, though recently accelerated, began almost a century and a half ago. In the decades following the Civil War, the American business community stopped viewing holidays as impediments to production and began recognizing their potential as incentives to consumption. In 1897 one of the leading trade papers of the time, the Dry Goods Economist , bemoaned those out-of-date entrepreneurs who still regarded “holidays as an unavoidable nuisance” resulting in “the loss of trade.” Three years later, the Dry Goods Chronicle urged its readers: “Never let a holiday… escape your attention, provided it is capable of making your store better known or increasing the value of its merchandise.” Advertisers took up the cry by promoting seasonal campaigns.
Though Halloween, compared with some of the more traditional holidays, was a slow starter in the race to commercial prominence, its fixed time slot, unlike the wandering Easter and Thanksgiving, and its established icons, such as jack-o’-lanterns, witches, and black cats, ultimately made it a marketer’s dream. Of the six billion dollars raked in on the holiday today, almost two go for sweets. Costumes account for between a billion and a billion and a half. The remaining sum buys decorations and food and drink for friends, but if you think that means some apples for bobbing, a pumpkin from your nearby road stand, and a cardboard skeleton with crepe-paper limbs, you’re hopelessly out-of-date.