Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Halloween Hangover

Anoka, Minnesota did not have the first U.S. halloween celebration in 1920 (or 1921) and I can prove it.

I jumped out of my recliner Sunday when I read a factoid in the almanac section of the Kansas City Star that gave the Anoka claim. I knew it was wrong. My great Aunt Mae Youker kept a diary in 1914 and I was familiar with her October 31st entry:


Went to choir rehearsal. Olive Ostrander, Ruby Bishop, and Hazel Rockwell met me. We went to [ ] store and got Kathryn Walker and all started out for Halloween fun. Met Leo [ ] and he took us up to his house and Olive and Hazel dressed up in Sailor's clothes and Leo in girl's clothes, then we went out on street. We met Dr. Petrie and the girls started to pelter him with flour. He said if we would only let him alone he would take us all in Greek's and treat us so we all went in with him. We went in all the stores and marched around and out again. Had quite a lot of fun. I came home a little after eleven.

It's got all the elements of the modern celebration: the costumes, the trick, and the reprieve granted by the promise of a treat. "Greek's" was the local candy and ice cream merchant in Dolgeville, NY in 1914. They also visited a number of businesses, although there is no further mention of treats.

Research on the topic revealed that Hiawatha, Kansas also beat Anoka, Minnesota by five years. This entry is from the Kansas Historical Society website:

Tragedies and excessive property loss moved communities to find creative ways of occupying children on Halloween night. Hiawatha's solution, an annual Halloween Frolic, was so successful that it was widely copied by towns throughout the United States. Started by a townswoman who lost a fence and flowers one Halloween, the Frolic's main entertainment in its early years was a parade of costumed revelers. Local business owners, eager to avoid property damage, provided cash prizes for the best costumes. The local newspaper proudly reported on the first Frolic in 1915, "There was no destroying of property and the marshals had the lonesomest Hallowe'en they have ever had."

If you visit the Anoka Halloween website, the description of their first Halloween celebration is almost identical to the Hiawatha account.

In light of this evidence, I contacted the source of the newspaper factoid, the U.S. census bureau. Their website included a press release about halloween with the outdated (Anoka) information. I received this response on 10/31/05 from Mr. Robert B Bernstein of the Public Information Office:

Thanks for your message about the origins of Halloween. The diary entry was very interesting! We will delete the sentence in the Facts for Features referencing the celebration in Anoka.

Wow! My Great-Aunt helped shed light on the origin of Halloween in the U.S. Now, I don't think that Dolgeville, NY or Hiawatha, KS invented the American Halloween experience, but at least we know the Anoka, Minnesota claim is flawed. 'First' anything is a claim that's hard to keep unless you're Neil Armstrong.

Before you write to tell me that Hallowe'en has been around since the druids, don't bother. I'm talking about the origins of the modern U.S. tradition. We know that the tricks on All Hallows Eve were recorded long before the appeasement process began. We may never know the absolute first, and it really depends on how one defines celebration. People in Anoka, the self-proclaimed Halloween capital of the world, may argue that their 1920 celebration was the first because the parade was followed by an organized candy giveaway, and that's a point that's missing from the Hiawatha account.

Where did the Anoka reference come from? It's on the Anoka website (they don't claim it outright themselves). They say it's "believed" and the claim has subsequently been referenced in dozens of other online stories about Halloween history. A search of "Halloween origins -- Anoka" returns a few references to a Yale Anthropologist named Ralph Linton. The original source may have been a 1950 book by Linton called 'Halloween through Twenty Centuries'.

Here's what bookrags.com had to say about it:

The definitive scholarly work on Halloween has yet to be written. Ralph Linton and Adelin Linton's Halloween through Twenty Centuries (New York, 1950) is an adequate introduction, though dated. Lacking substantial citations, it should be read along with other texts to ensure its accuracy.

I'll let you know if I find out anything else. In the meantime, I wrote to the mayor of Anoka, Mr. Bjorn Skogquist, and gave him the new information. I'm sure Anoka is a nice town with lots of Halloween spirit and a great civic tradition, but I'd like to find out more about the true genesis of the modern Halloween tradition in America, and I'm keeping Mayor Skogquist and the rest of you posted as I go.

No comments: