Halloween, a shortened form of “All Hallow Even,” marks the eve of All Saints Day, when souls of the dead and undead roam the earth. In olden times, it evoked not only mankind’s fear of the dark but also of dark powers. When wild winds whistled or will-o’-wisps glimmered through midnight mists, some folk kept evil away by banging raucous clangors. Others spun tales to still their pounding hearts.
The Irish told of Stingy Jack who, dealing with the Devil, was driven into endless night with just a hollowed turnip-lantern to guide his way. So when darkness fell, many kept Jack at bay by carrying ember-lit, hollow beets, potatoes or rutabagas carved with frightful faces. In time, Jack’s lanterns, jack-o’-lanterns, became associated with Halloween. When placed on windowsills or doorsteps, their fearsome features warded off wandering, evil spirits.
Halloween traditions reached the United States in the mid-1800s, along with waves of Irish and English newcomers. Instead of scooping out dense vegetable-lanterns however, they hollowed pulpy, orangey, native pumpkins. Ever since, their candle-lit flickering faces, have thrilled and chilled merrymakers.
Pressed paper jack-o’-lanterns, which feature “carved” facial features backed by fragile, transparent inserts, were initially made in Germany. By the 1920s, American paper plants like Dennison and Gibson, also produced bright, molded, rough egg-carton-type, happy, sad, sassy, surprised, scary and devilish jack-o’-lanterns. Since many were discarded after use, or went up in flames, all that survive are coveted collectibles.
In America, Halloween was initially an adult holiday. Yet, then as now, people attended masked balls, dinner dances and festive fairs amid jack-o’-lanterns, autumn leaves, cornstalks and other traditional black and orange holiday symbols. Because elderly, single, widowed or solitary women were believed to practice black magic, for example, images of witches astride broomsticks often adorned holiday fans, die-cut cards, plates and postcards. Images of hunched black cats, hissy “familiars” believed to aid sorcerers in otherworldly witchery, were also popular. So were cunningly functional cat-shaped lamps, lanterns, pull-toys and cast-iron doorstops.
In more rural areas, revelers not only evaded bogeymen, bugbears, hobgoblins and hell-hounds, but also practiced bizarre, tried-and-true Halloween traditions of days gone by. Some, following complex rites of “ silence and salt,” divined which neighbor might die within the year or whom a miss might marry. Others divined their futures by “reading” nuts left in glowing embers or taking bites from apples string-strung from lighted pine knots.
By 1930, Halloween celebrations had evolved into childish, frightful delights. Parades and parties were especially popular. At a memorable one, reveals The New York Times, over a thousand curiously costumed specters, between the ages of 4 and 15, were led, one after another, past eerily colored booths from which emerged images of spine-chilling skeletons and clutched fingers of witches.
Young partiers also amused themselves by pulling taffy, tooting tin horns, bobbing for apples, telling ghost stories and playing Snapdragon – seizing candied fruit or sugared almonds from sizzling, brandy-lit flames with their bare hands. Costumed trick-or-treaters either amassed goodies like cookies, candy corn, Cracker Jacks, Mars bars, Tootsie Rolls and homemade popcorn balls – or made mischief.
By the 1960s, an abundance of synthetics largely replaced traditional, deliciously fearsome metal and paper-based Halloween decorations. Since then, plastic jack-o’-lanterns, skulls, Pez dispensers, masks, as well as novelty noisemakers abound. So do Halloween-themed witch, ghost, owl, cat and bat masks and figurals.
These may be flashy. Vintage Halloween collectibles, however, have stood the test of time – against evil. Besides, they’re spookier.
After all, fear of the dark, fear of dark powers has not faded. To wit, a popular Scottish prayer –
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!