Halloween: Modern Traditions

With the arrival of European immigrants to the United States of America, came the varied Halloween customs indiginous to their former homelands. However, due to the rigid Protestant beliefs which characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited in that particular area of the country. Halloween festivities were much more common in Maryland and the colonies located in the South. As the customs practiced by these varied European ethnic groups meshed with traditions employed by the native American Indians, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.

The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held to celebrate the harvest. At these gatherings, neighbors would share stories of the dead, predict each others' fortunes, sing and make merry with dancing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and general mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the 19th Century, annual Autumn festivals were quite common, but Halloween was still not yet celebrated throughout the entire country.

During the second half of the 19th Century, America became flooded with a new wave of immigrants. These new arrivals...especially the millions of Irish nationals who were fleeing from the Potato Famine of 1846...helped greatly in popularizing the celebration of Halloween on a country-wide level. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to don costumes and journey from house-to-house asking for food or money (the probable forerunners of today's "trick-or-treaters"). Young women held the belief that they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by performing tricks with yarn, apple peelings or mirrors.

By the late 1800s, the focus of American Halloween celebrations had shifted to community and neighborly "get-togethers," becoming much less concerned with ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the 20th Century, Halloween parties for both children and adults were the most common way to celebrate the day. These parties featured the playing of games, indulging in the foods of the season and the wearing of festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by the press and community leaders to remove anything "frightening" or "grotesque" from the celebration of Halloween. Due to these efforts, Halloween rapdily lost the vast majority of its superstitious and religious overtones during this period.

With the arrival of the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular but community-centered holiday which included parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the efforts of many schools and communities at this time, a wide rash of vandalism and acts of destruction began to plague the celebrations in many communities. It was not uncommon for outhouses to be tipped over (whether occupied at the time or not) and the tipping over of cows in rural areas was considered to be a clever prank indeed. In some towns, the night prior to Halloween was known as Gate Night and that evening's activities included switching gates among neighborhood fences.

By the 1950s however, most town leaders had successfully limited such behavior and Halloween had evolved into a holiday which was directed mainly toward the young people. With the 1950s "baby-boomer" generation, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of "trick-or-treating" was also revived. This provided a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share in the Halloween celebrations. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. Thus, a new American tradition was born and continues to grow. In recent years, this practice has been put to even better use since some children collect pennies for UNICEF (United Nations International Childrens Emergency Fund) in bright orange, sealed cans instead of asking for candy as they go door-to-door.

In commercial and financial terms, Halloween is second only to Christmas with consumers spending over $2.5 billion annually on the purchase of candy, costumes, decorations and party goods.

A Party Of Departed Spirits: Ask each guest to come as the ghost of some famous deceased character. Each must bring a pumpkin lantern as their ticket of admission. When all guests are assembled, announce that the first game will be guessing the ghosts. Number each person, then furnish pen and paper for the contest. Award a prize to the one who guesses the most correctly.

Ducking For Apples: Place a dime in one apple, a ring in another and a button in the third. These denote fortune, marriage and single blessedness. Mix these apples in a large tub with as many others as will fit. Players try without the use of hands to secure an apple in their mouth. Everyone must then pare their apples, trying not to break the paring strip. The apple paring is thrown over the left shoulder and is then said to form the first initial of the parer's life mate.

Sailing Walnut Boats: Boats are made from the empty walnut shells. In each is fastened a short piece of brightly-colored candle, along with the name of someone at the party. Light the candle and set it afloat with others in a tub. The boat bearing the candle first extinguished on its own will denote a bachelor or an old maid.

Candle Blowing: Blindfold players and let them blow out a candle, the number of puffs required to extinguish the flame governing the number of years before the player's marriage.

The Luggies Or The Three Bowls: Place three dishes on the floor. One containing clean water, one containing milky water and one to be kept empty. Blindfold and the spin each player, asking the player to place his or her fingers in one dish. If clean water is touched, then there will be marriage to a gentleman or a maid. If milky water is touched, that signifies widowhood or separation. If the empty bowl is touched, then there will be no marriage at all.

The Looking-Glass: If a maid walks backwards down a stairway by candlelight, while gazing into a looking-glass, she may see the face of her future mate.

Pumpkin Fortress: "Twirl a Pumpkin, then strike true, For the name depends on you." Paste gummed letters on a pumpkin. Hand it by a string and twist it a few times before letting go. When it starts to spin, players stick it with a hat pin. Whatever letter they strike will be the initial of the player's intended.

Secret Messages: Stuff large, halved walnuts with fortunes written in lemon juice, which will become visible when held over a candle.

A Gift Of Charms And Talismans: Each guest picks a small sack tied with orange and black ribbon. Inside each bag is a strip of paper bearing an individual charm for each guest. They are told that the bags are blessed by Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and her blessing would serve to keep away the witches for a period of one year.

Mystery Cake: "Cut the Flour Cake of fate, It your fortune will dictate." Pack dry flour tightly in a deep cake tin and insert small fortune-telling charms attached to strips of paper. When ready to play, turn the cake out onto a board. Each player must cut a slice and remove what he or she finds with his or her teeth.

    Keep this charm next to your heart; it will bring you a friend in need.
    This charm in your right shoe worn, will help your troubles to be borne.
    Kept in your left-hand pocket, this charm will bring surprises.
    Hidden in your favorite book, pleasant memories around will look.
    Gaze on this charm in the morning, it will bring you much adoring.
    Worn in your glove this token will bring words kindly spoken.
    Toss this charm around you three times, it will insure good luck.
    This charm held to your eyes, will reveal only sunny skies.
    Seven nights held to your ears 'twill insure you length of years.
    Placed on the back of your left hand, 'twill summon all the fairy band.
    Bind this charm on the first oak you see, and you will happily wedded be.
    Carry this charm in your purse and it will never be empty.

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