New-York Historical Society

Beware of Things that go Blog in the Night

This post is by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”). The Celts’ New Year was November 1st. They believed that on the night before the New Year, boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and that ghosts returned to earth to wreak havoc by playing tricks on the living and damaging crops from the harvest.

The word Halloween is derived from “All Hallow’s Eve”, a Christian celebration that dates back to the mid 18th century. When European Immigrants, many of whom were Irish, came to America in the 19th century, they brought a great deal of the Halloween spirit with them and the ideas began to spread throughout the United  States. Many of the traditions that began hundreds of years ago have stood the test of time and have emerged into an integral part of our social culture. By the mid-20th century, the superstitious and religious overtones associated with the holiday were less prominent and the event became a time for communities to celebrate by decorating, attending parties, organizing parades… and eating!

Children at the Henrietta School celebrate Halloween in style, 1920s. Children's Aid Society Collection, MS 111. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals.

Children at the Henrietta School celebrate Halloween in style, 1920s. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, MS 111. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals.

Crops from the autumn harvest have always played a large role in Halloween traditions.  One such early European practice involved sending young single women into a cabbage field blindfolded. Each girl brought back a cabbage and the size and shape of said cabbage was believed to determine the likeness of her future mate’s head. (I suppose when they married, they gave birth to Cabbage Patch Kids.) In these wonderful photos from our Children’s Aid Society collection, we see youngsters enjoying some fall favorites. In the first, five African American children from the Henrietta Industrial School don their Halloween hats while eating tasty apples. In the second, a young boy from the Milbank Convalescent Home displays his pumpkin-carving skills.

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Young boy with Jackolantern at Milbank Convalescent Home, 1928. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, MS 111. Photo by Lewis Hine.

 Trick-or-Treating resembles the late medieval practice known as “souling”, in which the poor went door to door on November 1st begging for “soul cakes” in exchange for saying a prayer for the donor’s deceased loved ones on All Soul’s Day, November 2nd. Shakespeare makes a reference to

Trick-or-Treat Bag, circa 1970s. PR 264, Ephemera File

Trick-or-Treat Bag, circa 1970s. PR 264, Ephemera File

this practice in Two Gentlemen of Verona, when the character Speed states, “to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas”. A few centuries later, children were receiving candy in little Trick-or-Treat goodie bags, such as this one, from our Print Room’s Ephemera File.

 During medieval celebrations, large bonfires burned all evening as rituals were performed. The fires were also built in an effort to ward off evil spirits and singe the brooms of any witches that dared to fly overhead. Today, many people enjoy gathering around campfires to share ghost stories and roast marshmallows. Among the many books in our collection is this children’s book, published in 1948, Spooks of the Valley. All of the stories in the book were taken from folklore related to the Upper HudsonValley in New York.

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Endpaper illustration from Spooks of the Valley by Louis C. Jones, 1948.

 

Have no fear, even if you find yourself traveling on Halloween, you may just get treated to an appropriately-themed meal on your flight. This postcard-sized menu, issued by United Airlines in the 1950s, proves that flying can be fun… even if airline food itself is sometimes scary.

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United Airlines Halloween menu, circa 1950s. N-YHS Menu Collection

 

Come one, come all, and enjoy a festive parade full of creative costumes, live music, pageantry, and a real sense of community. This little pumpkin had her picture taken while standing on the sidelines at the Village Halloween Parade, held here in New York City. The infamous parade celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a theme of Hallelujah Halloween Revival. After being cancelled last year, due to the devastating effects of Sandy, folks are ready to rally together to show support for the Big Apple and to celebrate Halloween. For more information on this event, check out the following website: http://www.halloween-nyc.com/.

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Village Halloween Parade, 1987. PR 267, Erika Stone Photograph Collection

 

Happy Haunting From The Stacks at N-YHS!

 

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