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Halloween still a childhood ritual

For years just before Halloween, Fulton and Montgomery county newspapers invariably carried the same annual message from municipal police agencies.

This message, as printed in the Monday, Oct. 29, 1920 Gloversville Morning Herald, was typical: “Chief of Police George R. Smith issued a warning that all Halloween pranks must be kept within bounds. The usual Halloween pranks and jokes will be allowed, but on Saturday night only, and no destruction of property will be tolerated. Extra officers will be on duty for that night to see those restrictions are carried out.”

Just how did Halloween and the trick-or-treat idea develop?

Wikipedia declares the word Halloween means ‘hallowed eve’ derived from the Scottish term, All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Hallows Day, but the concept of a late October festival to celebrate the beginning of winter began in the middle ages.

In Ireland, Scotland and Wales, from at least the 15th century, the festive evening began just after dark with people walking from house to house wearing costumes and masks in disguise — “guising” it was called — while reciting verses, songs or moral homilies in exchange for small gifts of food.

If the householder provided the food, he could expect good fortune for himself and family, but if he didn’t, misfortune, including pranks played on him that very evening by the “guisers” would be his lot.

Guisers often carried lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips or small pumpkins to provide light shining through holes cut in scary, grotesque shapes.

In small villages, this activity usually cumulated in a pleasant, village-wide festival including games, apple-bobbing, nut roasting, bonfires, and telling scary stories to ward off evil spirits. In larger cities, these parties were usually hosted by guilds or social clubs.

If we discount fretting over evil spirits these days, most of the activities described above still occur, albeit in moderation. Prep time is more rapid since one can buy costumes and plastic jack-o-lanterns with battery powered lights inside, rather than waste time carving out turnips and burning fingers lighting candles.

Desiring to discover how long ago our area newspapers began carrying Halloween related notices, I consulted the Leader Herald’s old Gloversville Intelligencer files, dating from 1867 through to about 1890. To my surprise I found virtually nothing about Halloween, and it wasn’t until about 1905 when short notices began making regular appearances, mostly reviews of church or club-related parties featuring costume contests, apple-bobbing, and ghost story telling.

Pranking, however, was also happening, as proven by a Nov. 1, 1910 Morning Herald article on the previous night’s activities in Johnstown.

Headlined “Halloween in Old Johnstown,” it began, “Halloween was well-celebrated by Johnstownians last evening. The usual number of young people were on the streets in costumes and masks and created considerable fun, while others were on the side streets bent on annoying property owners and destroying property. The usual collection of wagons, doormats, gates and garbage pails were scattered far from their original locations. A number of Halloween parties were held, and all in all, Halloween was well celebrated.”

Reports of house and car window soaping start appearing in the early 1940s when children apparently discovered what they considered a better use for soap than washing.

The Oct. 28, 1943 Canajoharie Courier Editor, for example, complained, “Already the windows of cars and business places have been ‘soaped’ which is an operation that requires considerable time with a safety razor to clean up.”

Ways to counter pranking, however, were obvious, such as giving young people more constructive things to do. Newspaper coverage of city and village Halloween parades in our immediate area generally begin in the late 1920s, describing community events complete with floats, cheer leaders, bands, and civic organizations, but fire trucks were often missing, held in reserve to fight prank Halloween fires gone wrong.

It is difficult to establish just when Halloween parades began in our various bi-county cities. According to sketchy newspaper records, Johnstown’s parade, originally sponsored by the Johnstown American Legion, was well established before 1930.

Gloversville’s goes back to at least 1925. Amsterdam’s, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, was marching along by 1928 and Broadalbin’s was subsidized by the Robert Lee Walsh American Legion chapter.

Parades sparked community pride and drew youthful minds away from thoughts of overturning privies. Sponsoring organizations also encouraged peaceful Halloweening by holding prize-winning costume and pumpkin-decorating contests after the parades.

The Oct. 25, 1932 Gloversville Morning Herald, which evidently claimed some readers from Amsterdam, spoke of the Amsterdam parade, stating, “A large assortment of prizes are being offered by various businesses for those who appear in the parade in costumes.”

How many older Leader Herald readers remember the annual question of what costume to buy, if there was money available, or what one to make yourself, if there wasn’t?

In the early 1950s, home-made robot costumes were popular. It was the era of UFOs and besides, constructing a plausible robot out of a few cardboard boxes, a can of silver paint, and maybe adding a couple of old radio tubes sticking out of the robot’s head, was very likely to win a prize, except when another half dozen robots also showed up to compete.

Then you had to adopt Plan B, which was to tell the costume judges you weren’t really just another robot but instead the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man, and hope they knew the difference.

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