Halloween for our Ancestors – What Were They Thinking?

Depiction of various traditional Hallowe’en party games popular in the British Isles, 1700s and 1800s: the apple-or-candle game, bobbing for apples; and roasting chestnuts to divine aspects of your future lovelife.

There are a lot of Midwesterners who love Halloween.  Neighbors now compete with yard displays boasting coffins, skeletons, ghostly figures, dismembered bodies, monsterish creatures, giant spiders, cobwebs, and haunted-house motifs.  Some put a cheerful spin on it with happy ghosts and smiling pumpkins amid the tombstones.  At my Bible-believing church a couple years ago, a sweet lady was giving out iced witch-hat cookies during the donut break between worship songs to Jesus. 

Like most children, I loved dressing up in costume and eating candy.  However, I found the holiday emphasis on death and dark spirits confusingly out-of-place with the values and messages of my family and community.   I accepted it as similar to make-believe, dark fairy tales, but I wondered why we celebrated these things. 

Regardless of your point of view, the question comes:  How did our ancestors experience Halloween?  How did they come to pass down this odd heritage to us?  I decided to turn to old newspaper accounts to unravel a bit about how Halloween played out in our Midwest U.S. ancestor’s lives. 

Halloween in the Midwest (1800s and 1900s)

U.S. Midwest newspapers of the early and mid-1800s suggest a very different type of Halloween from what we know today.  There seems to have been little participation of adults with Halloween at this time.  Rather, the young people were presumed to be at the root of one or two activities:  (1) pranking or (2) playing with traditional superstitious divinations.  

Young boys somehow got word that Halloween was a night that gave them license to unleash devilry in their local communities.  The milder pranks involved misplacing wagons, livestock, and fences.  Community-minded elders annually lamented costly destruction of property on this night.  

This 1860 writer in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania describes the state of the holiday:

“Tonight is Halloween.  From time immemorial, this has been the occasion when all manner of quaint and fantastic tricks are played off—when an old grudge is wiped out or a joke paid off, with interest.  The next morning, merchants generally find their store-boxes piled up in a conglomerate heap; professional men see their cards staring at them from over the doors of stables and other out-ot-the-way places; and farmers occasionally discover their cows in the mow or their wagons on the roof of a barn.  The sport is now and then varied by building fences across the roads and streets, and by pulling down out-buildings. 

“Particularly is this a hard old time on cabbages.  Every youngster feels as if it devolves on him to “hook” and destroy every cabbage-head he can come across.”

“Halloween is the anniversary of the good old Scotch time when the elves and fairies and witches were supposed to stalk forth on the earth and hold a grand pow-wow.  And the gay lads and lassies then met together. . . . Halloween then was a time for mirth and gaety; now it is a time when wild young gentlemen can ventilate their superabundant deviltry with impunity.” [1]

Interestingly, damage concerns in the earlier 1800’s focused much on cabbage patches!  Here are some descriptions from 1866 Ohio papers:

“Young America reminded our citizens on Wednesday night, the 31st ult., that it was Halloween by beating on doors, stealing cabbage and other deviltry.”—The Spirit of Democracy, Woodsfield, Ohio, 6 Nov 1866

“. . . Even we can remember when Allhallow e’en was considered one of the most important and joyful evenings that was celebrated.  Its only observance here will be by the boys, who will celebrate the occasion with much noise and confusion, and the destruction of any unfortunate cabbage heads which may be found exposed to the frost upon that occasion.”—Lima Ohio Democrat, 31 Oct 1866.

Cabbage patch damage was different than random pranking or masquerading as roaming spirits of evil.  It was the result of young people perpetuating a Halloween tradition once dear to peasantry of the British Isles:  Young people headed into the cabbage patch to divine information about their future spouse by the shape of the first cabbage they pulled up in the dark.  This was part of a series of superstitious rituals documented by Robert Burns in 1785 in his long, lighthearted poem, “Hallowe’en.” 

Burns’ poem records several other superstitious divinations that the unmarried could perform to learn about their future. There were tests of eating an apple at a mirror, winnowing in the wind, drying the sleeve of a garment, casting a ball of yarn, etc., all which predict aspects of one’s future spouse.  There were quite enough to keep a party of young people busy and merry long after a cabbage patch had been decimated. 

An 1867 newspaper piece originating from The Pittsburg Post cites some “merry” games from English Halloween added to the divination practices, particularly “bobbing for apples,” as well as the beloved custom of nutcracking and roasting chestnuts to determine whether the course of their love will prove true.  Other “good old fashioned Halloween festivities” played out in the United States: “Cider in the jug, nuts upon the hearth, and apples on the table.”  He concludes, therefore, “Let us not let this good old festival die out in our midst.”[2]

However, a writer at the same time from the Davenport Iowa Quad City Times, after describing similar merry games and practices of the British Isles, laments a growing tension in the balance between the old-time parties and pranking:  “Old time customs are disregarded, and fun of a wicked kind is substituted.  The mischief done by youths on the strength of Hallowe’en is generally so wanton that the police officers have to interfere.”  [3]

By the latter 1800s, costly damage to property as a result of pranksters was an increasing problem.  Cities with active policing sometimes claimed to have a better handle on the situation, but property owners in smaller towns and rural areas faced the Halloween night (or the morning of revelation) with dread. 

An 1883 Marshalltown Iowa newspaper writer expressed the dread of the townspeople:

“This is Hallowe’en.  Take down your signs, chain down your gate, lock up your barn, tie a bull-dog to your front door, go to a prayer meeting, but keep an eye open for a pumpkin coming through the window.”[4]

A Windsor, Missouri editor wrote in 1896:

“No one objects to the boys indulging in a little harmless and injurious pastime, but when it comes to wrecking and destroying the property of their neighbors and friends to such an extent that the owner must “dig up” a good dollar or two to repair the damage, it is time to call a halt.  A survey of Windsor on a morning succeeding Hallowe’en, would lead one not acquainted with the circumstances . . . to believe that a small sized cyclone had visited the town, twisting gates from their fastenings, wrenching fences from their moorings, dismembering wagons and vehicles of all descriptions, tearing up sidewalks, toppling over “small” houses and tearing up Jack and playing thunder generally.” [5] 

We infer that the “small” houses likely refer to outhouses (privies).

Formally announced home Halloween parties started to become a more common newspaper mention in the latter 1800s.  In the early 1900s, Halloween parties were quite common, increasingly employed to channel the young people from destructive practices. Even churches were announcing Halloween parties. 

A 1903 volume of Werner’s Readings and Recitations was exclusively dedicated to “Halloween Festivities.”  Its introductory essay attested to the popularity of the holiday:

“Hallowe’en has become so popular among the schools and colleges that each in turn tries to outdo the other, and the night is given over to the pranks of the students, and the sounds of revelry are heard issuing from residence hall, chapter-house, and around the grounds of the school or college.”[6]

Halloween practices in the United States took a dramatic turn in the 1930s and 1940s with the emergence of “trick-or-treating.”  A few newspaper accounts in different parts of the U.S. and Canada describe enterprising youngsters calling at a home asking for a reward in exchange for not damaging property. Property owners were glad to bestow coins or treats in the exchange.  While some historians today draw parallels between trick-or-treating and ancient pagan customs, the 1930s newspapers tended to credit the young people with adopting the tactics of “gangster extortion” that were nonetheless welcomed as a happy solution to reduce Halloween destruction. [7], [8] It quickly caught on nation-wide.  

Early cards demonstrating “trick-or-treating.” On the right is an early example of a card provided with lollipops intended for handout on Halloween.

New York writer Hal Boyle, in 1942, explained his regrets on the new transformation of Halloween:

“It was a fine thing a generation ago, and I suppose it still is in many places.  We had our apple bobbing parties, then as now.  But the real delirious pleasure was to be allowed to stay up a few hours late playing harmless pranks.  We soaped a few storefronts.  We made horrendous noises against neighbor windows with a notched spool—and ran in panic. . . . There was no real vandalism.  The soaped windows could be cleaned with a razon blade and a little elbow grease.  But apparently event that small price became too much for some adults to pay for the thrill the youngsters got on their one night out.  For now in many communities they have formal pares and parties to keep the kids in check. Store owners get the children to draw pictures on the windows with washable paint and award prizes.”[9]

Early hosting of “haunted houses” in private homes began about the same time and is also said to have been spurred by the hope of further distracting Halloween pranking.  It was later followed by community haunted houses (often for charity) and theme park attractions.  Disney’s Haunted Mansion was first opened in Disneyland in 1961.  Its developers initially wrestled over whether it should be scary or fun and settled on a compromise of both. [10]

The mid-1900s was an era in which the popular culture separated the evil nature from the macabre, placing it in a fun and loving world.  Casper was a friendly ghost of the 1930’s comic strip who later had fun on early television.  Popular movies such as “Topper” (with Cary Grant), and “Harvey” (with James Stewart) all featured comical situations with ghosts.  1964 television brought not one, but two different loving and zany monsterish families–“The Addams Family,” and “The Munsters”—weekly into the American family living room.  Simultaneously, the beloved witch-turned-housewife Samanatha was introduced to families on the television comedy “Bewitched.” All three of these shows became successful in reruns targeted to after-school children throughout the 1970s. 

However, television continued to make space for “scary” Halloween themes.  The late 1900s culminated in Halloween-themed mainstream horror movies that decidedly put the reality of evil back into Halloween and drove adult participation to a new level.

Early Halloween Origins

Halloween’s foundations, wrapped around the idea of roaming evil spirits, traditionally have been thought to have originated with Celtic Druids prior to Christianity’s reach.  The Celtic festival of summer’s end, Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), was marked the day in the year in which dead souls roamed on the earth.  Sacrifices were made to pagan gods in large bonfires.  Catholic popes applied measures to adapt the beloved pagan customs into the Roman Catholic the All-Saints Day and All Hallows Eve celebrations.  Some Lutheran, Catholic, and German historians now dispute the pagan/Druidic origins of Halloween, stating that the Druidic practices of Samhain were separate and perhaps had even died out long before the fascination of death and evil spirits became associated with All-Saints Day in the early Christian church.

Regardless of the origins, we do know that for our ancestors in the middle ages, whether Celtic or mid-European, death and the dark spiritual world were a part of their reality.  Certainly, the Catholic teaching of the necessity to pray for dead souls stuck in a temporary purgatory tended to keep the image of unsettled, roaming spirits in mind.   The Reformation taught from the Bible that ghosts purporting to be human souls were frauds (either demonic or earthly).  However, ghost story culture remains persistent.

The witches, goblins, and other evil spirits in the old fairy tales remind us of the prevalence of spiritual evil themes passed down from folk stories from long ago and popularly shared with children over the centuries.  After two centuries of the Enlightenment, the Brother’s Grimm published their treasury of tales in 1811.  Their counterparts in France, Russia, and Scandinavia all share elements of witchcraft, goblins, and other spiritual evil, though in some it is more “magical” than evil.  The implication is  that the magical elements of these tales, were not meant to be believed as real.  The prevalence of fairy tale culture largely explains why it was so acceptable for U.S. school children of the 1900s to dress up as witches and ghosts or draw pictures of dancing skeletons as fictional characters, “all in fun.”

Werner’s Readings and Recitations (1903) put it this way: 

“. . . What was once a ceremony of belief has now become a thing of sport, of welcome sport in a day of such serious thought and work and sense of responsibility that any excuse for sport should be laid hold of; so that now its observances are all a jest which young people lay upon themselves, not in the least believing in the consequences, only half hoping there may be something in it, and saying to themselves that stranger things have happened.”[6]

The Halloween of our Earlier Ancestors Comes to the Americas

Most historians claim minimal observance of Halloween in the United States until after the 1840’s influx of Irish immigrants at the time of the Irish potato famine. 

Prior to the 1840s, newspapers in the British Isles make occasional mention of the old superstitious Halloween celebrations as cherished, nostalgic customs of the country folk.  The practices were already perceived as dying out.[11] Descriptions of “the old customs” seem similar to the superstitious rites performed in Robert Burns’ “Halloween” of the same general time period:

 
 "Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween
Full of fun that night.”[12] 

An 1812 writer in The Royal Cornwall Gazette, attests that the superstitious rites of Christmas and Halloween were done more in fun than in actual belief:

“The humbler ranks have been accused of superstition because the stocking is still thrown, the pod with nine peas hid over the door, and all the little ceremonies so admirably depicted by Burns in his Hallowe’en still practiced.  These, however, are now generally looked upon as a diversion, and few have faith in their efficacy; for in our days the poor have as good common sense as their superiors.  These diversions come to them but once a year, and it is to be hoped they may long continue to practice them.”[13]

Our Puritan ancestors in New England were opposed to unbiblical, secular practices associated with both Halloween and the English Christmas traditions.  Of course, we know from the sad story of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, that the Puritans were aware that witchcraft was a real thing mentioned in the Bible (abhorrent to God, Deuteronomy 18:10-12) and which they believed to still be practiced by some.  This sometimes led to a sort of counter-superstition of beliefs in black cats and other signs of witches.

Likewise, the Dutch embraced the Reformation and largely renounced both Pagan and Catholic traditions of Halloween in the 16th century, so some say that Halloween had no part in the early Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam and other parts of New York and Pennsylvania.  However, an 1864 writer of Cleveland, Ohio, attributed the Scottish practice of Cabbage divination to “the first Dutch Settlers of Pennsylvania and New York.”  Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” paints the picture of a Dutch village in New York in the late 1700s, following the American Revolution, rumored to be bewitched.  A superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane becomes frightened by ghostly stories told at a harvest party at a Dutch homestead, and even more so by a prank that brought him the embodiment of the ghost of the “headless horseman.”  The story reminds us of a cultural traditions of harvest parties and ghost stories apart from Halloween which later easily merged into the Halloween culture.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow illustration by George H. Boughton, published 1907

Europeans today—even the North European Protestant areas—celebrate the originally Roman Catholic “St. Martin’s Day” on the 11th of November, with traditions such as bonfires and the carrying of lanterns which may be the result of early co-mingling of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon harvest festivals. Oddly, the St. Martin’s celebrations did not seem to gain a foothold among the German-American immigrant communities. 

The British-European histories seem to mesh with the early newspaper accounts:  Halloween for our U.S. ancestors was little more than a night of pranks and a few dying hand-me-down superstition games for young people, until the 1900s, when a desire to redirect young people and a penchant for finding the good in fairy tales turned Halloween into a nation-wide party event for young and old. 


Selected Sources:

[1] “Local and Personal,” The Ebensburg Alleghenian, Ebensburg, PA, 1 Nov 1860, p. 3.

[2] The Pittsburg Post, quoted in “Halloween,” Daily Ohio Statesman, Columbus, OH, 31 Oct 1867, p.3.

[3] “Hallowe’en,” Quad-City Times, Davenport, IA, 31 Oct 1867, p.1.

[4] The Times Recorder, Marshalltown, IA, reported in Muscatine Weekly Journal, Muscatine, IA, 9 Nov 1883, p. 5.

[5]  “Hallowe’en Fiends,” The Windsor Review, 5 Nov 1896, p. 5

[6] Stanley Schell, Werner’s Readings and Recitations, No. 31: Halloween Festivities, New York: Edgar S. Werner and Co., 1903, p. 14, https://archive.org/details/halloweenfestivi31sche/page/14/mode/2up.

[7] “Trick Or Treat,” The Bend Bulletin, Bend, OR, 4 Nov 1936, p.4.

[8] “Has a Mixer,” The Daily Chronicle, De Kalb, IL, 1 Nov 1938, p. 1.

[9] Hal Boyle, “Boyle Mourns for Hallowe’en as it Was When He Was Young,” Jefferson City Post-Tribune, Jefferson City, MO.

[10] “The Haunted Mansion,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Haunted_Mansion, accessed 26 Oct 2020.

[11] “Halloween: From the Pen of One of the Olden Time,” The Waterford Mirror, Waterford, Ireland, 20 Nov 1824, p. 4.

[12] Robert Burns, “Halloween,” (Modern English Translation, translator unknown), “Myth for Kids,” http://www.mythicjourneys.org/mythkids_oct06_burns.html

[13] “Christmas-Keeping,” The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet, and General Advertiser, Truro, Cornwall, England, 22 Dec 1821, p. 4.

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