America’s Favorite Holidays (University of California Press, 2015) describes how five of America’s culturally important holidays – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving – came to be what they are today, seasonal and religious celebrations heavily influenced by modern popular culture. Bruce David Forbes answers numerous nagging questions about the origins and history of our favorite celebrations: Was Christmas always as commercialized as it is today? Is Thanksgiving a religious or secular holiday? When did we begin trick-or-treating on Halloween? Deftly distilling information from a wide range of sources, Forbes reveals the often-surprising stories behind each holiday and the fascinating ways in which religion and culture mix. Unsurprisingly, the following excerpt comes from the section “Halloween.”
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Anoka, Minnesota, provides a case study of a community’s attempt to do something about Halloween mischief. In a national context in which pranks seemed to be getting meaner and stories circulated about angry adults shooting buckshot at young people and chasing them in cars, Anoka’s citizens were upset about some of the incidents that happened in their own community on the Halloween evening of 1919. An outhouse had been tipped over with someone in it, windows were soaped, and a horseless carriage was placed on the roof of Anoka High School. Most distressing of all, someone let loose a herd of cows that were found wandering Main Street the next morning, with one even making its way into the county jail. Another cow had been locked into a school classroom and “was reported to have eaten three history and two algebra books. Clearly, the citizens of the town had had enough.” Civic leaders formed a committee to address the problem and enlisted support from the local Commercial Club and Kiwanis chapter. To provide alternative activities for Halloween in 1920, they organized a city parade that included bands, the police and fire departments, civic clubs, and hundreds of children marching in costume, followed by a bonfire and the distribution of free popcorn, candy, and other treats. It worked, and the vandalism diminished. The next year they did it again and the parade drew thousands. Anoka has continued its annual Halloween parade and many auxiliary activities every year since then except for 1942 and 1943, during World War II. Today a suburb of Minneapolis with almost 20,000 residents, Anoka bills itself as the Halloween Capital of the World and draws about 70,000 visitors annually to its parades, concerts, fireworks, dances, races, and other activities. The city’s website advertises that it was “the first city in the United States to put on a Halloween celebration to divert its youngsters from Halloween pranks.” If it wasn’t the first, it was certainly among the earliest. In the following decades, other towns and cities launched similar efforts to keep young people out of mischief on Halloween night by entertaining them with dances, parades, games, window-painting and costume contests, and parties, all sponsored by schools, churches, and civic organizations.
Another development that helped tame Halloween was the emergence of trick-or-treating as an activity for younger children. The focus was on collecting candy from house to house, with not a whiff of threatened tricks. We might assume that this children’s activity was always a central part of Halloween, but that is not so. This new kind of innocent trick-or-treating began around the time of World War II and blossomed fully in the 1950s and 1960s. Until then, young children had been largely absent from American Halloween activities; almost all previous Halloween customs involved young adults and older ones. What began in the late 1940s with children wearing homemade costumes and collecting apples and popcorn balls from neighbors transformed quickly in the 1950s and thereafter to children wearing manufactured costumes representing the latest favorite television and movie characters and collecting candy. It was only then that candy manufacturers found in Halloween a target market and candy became closely associated with the holiday. Sales opportunities for costumes and decorations also increased dramatically. In the words of folklorist Tad Tuleja, Halloween became “simultaneously commercialized and infantilized.” Trick-or-treating by costumed children became the signature Halloween activity after World War II, a ritual especially well suited to growing suburban communities but also adopted in other settings. Informal community expectations developed about what age was too old to participate. With children going house to house, much of the pranking by young men was pushed aside, the home fortune-telling customs were discarded, and, as summarized by Halloween historian Lisa Morton, “The young people who had once enjoyed practicing those games were now confined to either the occasional costume party or handing out treats with older family members.”
Reprinted with permission from America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories by Bruce David Forbes and published by University of California Press, 2015.