Mason County Memories… A history of Halloween memories

By Catherine Hamm - Special to OVP



Hey everybody! After bringing this idea up to Ohio Valley Publishing Editor Beth Sergent, we thought it might be fun to occasionally bring in a guest historian. These will be other dedicated historians, both from this area and colleagues from abroad, who know a thing or two about Mason County, West Virginia, Appalachia, and the United States. This week, I’d like to welcome Catherine Hamm, retired social studies teacher at Wahama High School and adjunct history and geography professor at Marshall University. So, without further ado….

The oppressive summer heat has faded until another time, while the cooler autumn temperatures and golden sunlight stir within us memories of childhood anticipation for the pinnacle of celebrations that filled our daydreams. Halloween. The holiday to dress up and indulge in one of the greatest gifts of childhood, the ability to pretend. Tie a bandana to a stick and suddenly you are a hobo. Borrow your mother’s hoop earrings, wrap a long piece of fabric around your waist, and you are a gypsy. For this one magical night, anything is possible. The traditions celebrated in Appalachia trace their beginnings to the United Kingdom, and while evolving overtime, they remain close to the original mix of pagan and religious activities.

Halloween began around Celtic bonfires during the Samhain Festival, a celebration meant to scare off ghosts. For the Celts, the new year began on Nov. 1st, and October 31st was a time for the dead to return to earth. To appease them, sacrifices were made while participants donned animal skins and danced around the blazing fires.

The ninth century Catholic Church, attempting to stop the pagan celebrations, declared Nov. 1st to be All Saints Day, even offering soul cake for good fortune. Oct. 31st became All Hallows Eve. However noble the intentions to discourage the belief in witches and ghosts, the Church fought a losing battle against folklore and superstition.

In Medieval Scotland, to appease evil spirits, guising became popular as children disguised themselves in old clothing and went house to house, performing a song or poem in exchange for coins, apples, or nuts.

Ireland’s contribution involved a drunken farmer named Jack, whose dealings with the devil kept him out of heaven and hell. Doomed to roam, he carved out a turnip for a lantern, giving light to his lost soul. Irish homes kept candles in carved turnips for good luck. Irish immigrants brought the legend to America, but the turnip was soon replaced by the pumpkin, or Jack-o’-lantern.

The commercialism of the 1920s saw companies such as Beistle mass-producing costumes and paper-mâché decorations. Masks, known by many as a false face, were of witches, ghouls, and devils. Today, you can find almost any décor or costume your heart desires.

Now, while the term Trick or Treat was first used in a Canadian newspaper in 1927, the “trick” part was firmly entrenched in 18th and 19th century America. Occurring on Oct. 30th, it meant window soaping, blocking roads with logs, opening farm gates for livestock to escape, or tipping over outhouses. Known as Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, Gate Night, Devil’s Eve, or Goosey Night, groups of teens carried out activities that blurred the lines of criminal activity

such as throwing eggs, hurling bricks into shop windows, throwing flour on unsuspecting adults, stealing and then smashing pumpkins.

Receiving treats has evolved from the soul cakes or apples of ancient times to more tasty fare. In the 1940s, homemade treats of candied apples, popcorn balls, cookies were offered, usually unwrapped and presented on trays for children to help themselves. Rice Krispy Treats, created by a Kellogg employee and Campfire Girl leader as a fundraiser, became a treat favorite when the recipe appeared on the cereal box in the early 1940s. Chicken Feed, a candy from the 1880s, found new popularity in the 1940s with a different name, Candy Corn. The end of wartime sugar rationing in 1947 meant companies flooded the market with candy perfect for giving, and the 1950s availability of Devil’s Food cake mixes made them a standard, perfectly named cupcake treat.

Attempts to civilize the holiday failed until the 1930s, when civic and religious leaders banded together to stop the vandalism. Schools began hosting community parades and parties with activities such as bobbing for apples, a game meant to predict a sweetheart, and during WWII, kids signed pledge cards not to engage in disruptive behavior, noting it was their patriotic duty to behave. During the 1950s, lest they be considered greedy, children were urged to collect money for UNICIF while they filled their candy bags or pillowcases.

This impulse to reign in the holiday’s pagan roots and debauchery has never gone away. Attempting to distance themselves from Halloween’s occult roots, Protestant churches sometimes celebrate Reformation Day, with children encouraged to dress as Biblical figures. Yet, these well-meaning intentions often seem hopeless when children with vivid imaginations make Lazarus rising from the dead look like The Mummy, or the Queen of Sheba bear a striking resemblance to a belly dancer.

But, after all, Halloween is about pretending to be anything, or anyone you want.


By Catherine Hamm

Special to OVP