(Part One of a Three-Part Holiday blog series) by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS Museum Studies graduate student
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I can’t for sure tell you why, but I love everything about the costumes, neighborhood activity, horror movies, essentially everything that makes Halloween the event that we know today. This got me thinking, though, how has Halloween evolved? We hear every year that “Christmas is becoming too commercialized,” and “Remember the reason for the season.” This makes me question if the same thing has happened to Halloween.
Growing up, my Halloween consisted of finding the perfect Halloween costume each year (I’m not going to lie, it was a mermaid costume nine times out of ten). Then my classroom would have a Halloween party where we got to dress up in school. On Halloween night we’d wait until almost dark and then run up and down our cul-de-sac roads scooping up as much candy as we could before our neighbors ran out. I’m realizing now that some of these traditions have evolved, and it hasn’t been that long since I was the child participating in the Halloween festivities.
(Alright, I’m not always a mermaid– but then again, this costume wasn’t for Halloween!)
For some context into the evolution of Halloween throughout the years, I consulted the Oberlin Heritage Center’s oral history transcripts. I was hoping that I could find a good story that illustrates what Halloween was like in the years before I was born. As I’ve already described, my Halloween memories consisted of seeking out the biggest stockpile of candy that we could amass. Often times this quest meant seeking out the houses that left their candy unguarded. From these candy bowls we would take huge handfuls of candy to fill our pillowcases. As Patty Stetson described in her interview with Lisa Goodman in 1984, there was a time when children had a little more self control when it came to a heaping bowl of unattended candy:
I think another typical example of Oberlin youth is the lady on Morgan Street who was able to leave her basket of goodies for trick or treat night. She was going to be away, and she wanted the children to be able to have a treat. She didn’t want any tricks, so she just left a great big basket out on her front step with a note saying that she was very sorry she was out of town, but she wanted to make sure that all the children received their treats, and our children came home so thrilled that night that when they got to her house, there was a good supply left, and everyone just helped themselves to one a piece. And this was about an hour into the trick or treat [time] on Halloween night, so no one had bothered to dump them or steal them or fill their pockets. They just all took their share and went on their way.
–Patty Stetson, January 18, 1984
Patty then goes on to describe another Halloween tradition: pranks. Today I think our most common Halloween pranks are pumpkin smashing and toilet-papering a house. These are fairly harmless pranks, but Patty tells a story of a less harmless Halloween prank that happened to her mother in the past.
Surprisingly enough, we very rarely hear of any pranks. I remember my mother had a terrible prank played on her. The gal, to this day—she lives in Colorado now—and this was when she was a little girl. Every time she comes back to town, she reminds me of the time she burned my mother’s wooden yard furniture… she and her two brothers. They just had decided—they all lived on East College Street, and they just decided it would be very funny to start a barn fire, and they were going to use this wooden furniture out near the [South] Park Street playground… the only prank I ever really remember. Unfortunately, they were punished, I am afraid, by the police. But it isn’t often, I think maybe twice that I can remember, out of all the years I lived here, have I gone downtown and seen soaped windows, which seemed to be the common thing to do on Halloween.
–Patty Stetson, January 18, 1984
Another Halloween tradition that I fondly recall from my childhood was the events that took place after our Trick-or-Treating was done. While the adults spent time talking, myself, my brother, and our neighborhood friends would run around our backyards playing a game we called “Scare”. The game basically played like Hide and Seek except the main goal was to jump out and scare your friends once they got close to your hiding spot. Eventually once we were done playing we would then go to one of our houses and have some hot chocolate and start digging into our candy. From the next clip in our oral history collection, you can see that frightening or annoying your neighbors and then getting to spend quality time with them is a pretty old Halloween tradition:
MH: Halloween—we always put on some sort of mask and some kind of ridiculous costume and made the rounds of the neighborhood, but we were never distrusted. We didn’t have beggars’ night as they do now; the night before Halloween proper, we called it Tic Tac night; we would take a spool and notch the edges of it and put a pencil or something through it—a piece of wood—and a string around it and draw that over a window, and this made a sort of frightening sound and that was as far as we went to annoy our neighbors.
MA: And there were no handouts …
MH: And there were no handouts. And sometimes, I remember Mrs. Bear, who lived on Elm Street, would often let us come to her house, and we might have cider and donuts after we had made our rounds on Prospect, but that was fun.
As I finish up this post, I would like to leave you with a reassurance from years gone by. As we all know, and probably complain about, it seems that our holidays are starting to run together. Our back-to-school supplies are sold in retail stores alongside our Halloween decorations. Our Halloween candy is displayed right next to this year’s latest and greatest turkey roasters, and even our Christmas decorations can be bought before Thanksgiving is even over. Every year I’ve felt that our holidays are coming earlier and earlier so while researching for this post, I came across this short clip that made me a lot more comfortable with our current state of holiday planning. As it turns out, Frank Zavodsky noticed that Christmas was seeping into Halloween decades ago, so maybe this is a holiday trend that isn’t so unfamiliar after all!
Before Halloween is over or before Halloween gets here, they are starting to play Christmas music in the stores. This just turns me off.