KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Halloween is right around the corner, making it a great time to learn about the holiday’s origins and history. Most scholars agree that the ancient holiday originated from Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain.
During the Christianization of Europe in the middle ages, pagan festivals were borrowed and reconstructed by the early Church into its practices. Today Halloween is a mix of customs from several different cultures across time. The Midwest even has its own unique stamp on the holiday — in St. Louis children are encouraged to tell a joke or story before they receive a piece of candy.
Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve are all names for a celebration observed in several countries on October 31. It is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day, a festival to celebrate and honor all the saints, known and unknown. Several churches do not practice this and could be unfamiliar with the practice. Several Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Nazarene, Lutheran, and other Protestant churches recognize it in some way. For many, it’s a way to honor the faithful departed, those who made an impact on the congregation, or to remember deceased loved ones.
Halloween didn’t spread in North America until the 19th century when Irish and Scottish immigrants emigrated to the continent. Kansas City’s foundation was primarily laid out by Irish settlers; they built and constructed some of the first buildings and roads here.
The practical and magical uses of Samhain in Ireland
The Irish settlers also brought to the Midwest their ties to Samhain, which roughly translates to “summer’s end.” The festival marks a practical purpose for farmers: the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Back in Ireland, Samhain marked the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is one of four traditional Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh.
Some historians argue there is evidence that Samhain, or something close to it, dates back tens of thousands of years. Some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned to the timing of the sunrise in Samhain. The term is mentioned in some of Ireland’s oldest literature, lore, and mythology. For agricultural peoples, the festival signaled a time for preparation: the harshness of winter is on the way, food needs to be in storage, and homes must be tidied. Religious ceremonies and rituals obviously rose up in conjunction to this.
For thousands of years during Samhain, it was customary for Irish farmers to move their cattle from their summer pastures to shelters — or the cows and other livestock were slaughtered for winter. Bonfires started this time of year for both practical and superstitious reasons — some believed the flames were a protective charm or a type of cleansing magic. Later with the blend of Christianity into Samhain, the bonfires served to keep away the devil.
People made offerings to spirits or fairies — called the Aos Sí. The Irish did this to ensure they and their livestock survived the cold weather. Many left out food or drink offerings to the fairies. There was also the belief that souls of the dead would revisit their homes for some hospitality. Over the centuries, Samhain and All Saints’ merged to create the modern Halloween we know today. Historians often use the term Samhain to refer to Gaelic Halloween traditions that existed all the way to the 19th century.
In medieval Ireland, Samhain also marked an important switch in the year for economic matters. The holiday ended the season for trade and was a time for tribal gatherings — which often consisted of sharing familiar tales. Irish myths were originally an oral tradition, but many of the stories were eventually written down by Christian monks in the Middle Ages. They put their own Christian spin on many of the tales, particularly ones they didn’t completely understand or agree with.
Some of the ancient customs for Samhain included games to tell the future or as a means of entertainment, such as: apple bobbing, nut roasting, scrying or mirror-gazing, pouring molten lead or egg whites into water, and dream interpretation.
A history of Halloween in the United States
In the United States, Halloween spread from immigrant communities during the mid-19th century. Many of the immigrants were escaping the perils of Ireland’s Great Potato Famine. Millions in Ireland died during the period of starvation from about 1845 to 1849. Those who sought refuge from the crisis moved to foreign lands.
Halloween in the United States gradually became mainstream. By the first decade of the 20th century, it was celebrated coast to coast by people of all backgrounds. Halloween today is a mixture of Christian eschatology; pagan myths, popular works of Gothic and horror literature, like Frankenstein and Dracula; Hollywood movies; ghost stories and lore; and the harvest season.
Trick-or-treating has also taken several different forms over the centuries. In England, from the medieval period up until about the 1930s, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Halloween. Souling means to ask or beg for donations of food.
Groups of both Protestants and Catholics went from parish to parish begging the rich for soul cakes — often made from currants, oats, and flour — in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends.
In Scotland and Ireland, guising became popular among children – they dressed in costumes and went door to door for food or coins. The Halloween tradition in Scotland dates back to the year 1895. Children masqueraders also carried lanterns made from carved turnips.
The practice of guising during Halloween in North America dates back to roughly 1911; that year a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, Canada reported children going “guising” around their neighborhood.
Trick-or-treating didn’t become a widespread practice until the 1930s, with the first U.S. appearance of the term in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939 — interestingly enough that’s the year the mega popular film The Wizard of Oz released into theaters. An acceptance of the fantastical and spooky was on the rise.
The first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in stores in the 1930s. Costumes over time widen in selection. Traditionally the clothes were modeled after supernatural figures like werewolves, witches, monsters, ghosts, and skeletons. (Costumes like in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.)
Halloween in Kansas’ past
Halloween celebrations in Kansas during the 19th century and early 20th century are vastly different from what we experience today. Newspapers and old records reveal tricks were more common than treats. In fact parents, teachers, and towns came up with other delights to get children to forgo their pesky pranks.
Halloween night in 1897 was rough for the town of Chanute in southeast Kansas. The Chanute Daily Tribune reported widespread damage in the area the following day. The November 1st issue noted that: “The sewer pipe was rolled into the big ditch and some of it broken. Thomas’ wagon was broken, gates were taken off and in some instances lost, outhouses thrown over and broken up, and in some places the sidewalks were torn up.” Earlier in the week the Daily Tribune urged boys not to tamper with property or to “pull up culverts and bridges because you may endanger life by doing so.”
Wichita set rules to prevent Halloween shenanigans in 1899. According to the Kansas History Society, the city threatened those who engaged in pranks with jail time.
The Wichita Eagle reported the following on October 31, 1899: “Chief Cubbon has issued an order that all boys, large or small, caught molesting property will be punished by fine and maybe by imprisonment.” Even still, police found several signs and boxes in the wrong place in downtown Wichita that night.
Hiawatha, in northeast Kansas, had a terrible time with Halloween trickery in the early years of the 20th century. The Hiawatha Daily World was pleased to call the 1913 holiday “the most sane Hallowe’en that Hiawatha has had in many a year. Outside of the one dangerous act of filling an old delivery wagon with inflammable material, setting it on fire and hauling it along the streets, there was no outrageous acts perpetrated, no pyramids of old vehicles and buildings in the streets, or on the corners.”
The same paper reported a boy from a nearby town was hurt when the horse he was riding crashed into some machinery placed on the road by pranksters.
In order to stop the nonsense, Hiawatha created an annual Halloween Frolic — which continues to this day. In 1914, Mrs. John Krebs held a party for the Hiawatha children. In those first years, the children put on costumes and decorated their bikes and wagons. The Halloween Frolic tradition expanded over the years to include two big parades, contests with trophies and cash prizes, and a Halloween Queen contest.
Towns throughout the United States copied the Halloween Frolic to help prevent widespread pranks. Local business owners who were eager to avoid property damage in Hiawatha on the night have provided cash prizes for the best costumes. The local newspaper proudly reported on the first Frolic in 1915, “There was no destroying of property and the marshals had the lonesomest Hallowe’en they have ever had.”
Private dinner parties also became the norm for Halloween during the early 20th century. The Hays Daily News informed its readers of a Halloween banquet and dance in 1930 at the Lamer Hotel: “A centerpiece in the room was fashioned of corn shocks and piled high with autumn fruits and vegetables. Each table held a centerpiece of a pumpkin filled with fruit on an orange and black paper decoration. Orange colored balloons were suspended from the chandeliers and gangling skeleton figures hung at each window. Jack O’Lanterns were used for lights.”
Widespread antics and methods to bring order
During the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, children, particularly boys, categorically participated in large Halloween pranks — but this sometimes turned into vandalism or even violence. The night of October 31, 1879 in Newport, Kentucky some 200 boys hid a stuffed figure on train tracks spooking the train’s engineer leading him to pull the brake and halt the iron horse just in the nick of time. But it was only the antics of the youth, not a real person on the train’s path. The boys reportedly howled with amusement when the train stopped.
Across the United States in the latter 1800s, common Halloween tricks included placing farmers’ wagons and livestock on barn roofs (great question as to how), uprooting vegetables in gardens, and tipping over outhouses. Youths unhinged gates allowing livestock to escape — which led to the nickname for Halloween: the aptly called Gate Night.
The invention of the automobile invited more opportunities for mischief. Teens removed manhole covers from streets, deflated tires, and placed fake detour signs to confuse drivers.
At first, the pranking was fairly innocent and limited to rural communities, but as metropolitan areas expanded, kids took their pranking into the cities including intentionally setting fires, breaking glass, and tripping pedestrians. It was a really obnoxious time for adults — boys ran through city streets splattering people with bags of flour or black stockings filled with ashes. In 1918, youths in Kansas City, Kansas used candles to wax streetcar tracks on a steep hill. This caused a vehicle to slip and crash into another streetcar, seriously injuring a conductor, Miss Tracy Kloeppel.
The article in The Topeka State Journal reported Kloeppel’s internal injuries might lead to her death. Nine boys were held without bond by police because of the Halloween prank. Kansas state law made parents responsible for the pranks their children created; the street car company announced it “would prosecute the boys now held.”
During the 1930s, civic and religious authorities, community organizations, and families came together in different metros to come up with plans to preoccupy children and prevent pranks. This led to the emergence of Halloween centered parties, carnivals, and costume parades. With the economic free fall of the Great Depression, looting and chaos erupted to its magnum opus on Halloween nights. Some cities were considering banning Halloween altogether.
Every decade posed a new zeitgeist for Halloween in America. During World War II, youth took pledges to support the soldiers and sailors abroad by not engaging in Halloween vandalism. Children in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, vowed to “back our fighting men by observing Halloween as they would want me to. I will share in good, clean fun and merriment, fight against waste and damage!”
In the 1950s, the mischief didn’t die out completely. It just moved to the night before Halloween. The children wanted a combination of tricks and treats, mischief and candy. Sometimes the “preoccupation campaign” failed to distract the kids and made them want more of the holiday altogether.
In parts of the Northeast, October 30 became known as Mischief Night. It was called Goosey Night in parts of New Jersey. Dating back to the old Scottish pranking tradition, it was even known as Cabbage Night by some locales. Vandalism during this time usually involved soaping windows, spraying shaving cream, throwing eggs at houses, or tossing toilet paper over trees and bushes.
The baby boom in the 1950s brought Halloween parties to homes and classrooms. Trick-or-treating, which had tapered off, was revived this decade. Many families took part in it to give their children candy and steer them away from tricks.
No American city does Halloween like St. Louis
In St. Louis, there’s a whole other spin on trick-or-treat. Children are highly encouraged to tell jokes to get sweets. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the joke telling on Halloween started in St. Louis. Dr. John Oldani, Author of “St. Lou-isms” wrote that it dates back at least a century.
Dr. Oldani told USA Today the tradition comes from Samhain. In Irish lore, people were said to come back from the dead on Halloween night. Muck Olla was an entity no one wanted to greet.
Oldani told USA Today: “He was haunting everyone, so you had to go to the house dressed in a costume, so he would not grab you… [if Olla knew] who you were, you had to ask for something to give him.” Oldani said during the traditional Samhain, people would tell a joke or recite a poem as the necessary gift. It was also meant to ward off evil spirits.
The word Halloween dates back in historic records to about the year 1745. Jump to the year 2019, and roughly one quarter of all the candy sold throughout the year in the U.S. is purchased for October 31st. Halloween has grown to become America’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.