With the little people in my life now sprinkled across the country, I am woefully underinformed about 21st century Halloween customs. Calendar-wise, however, Halloween 2020 is upon us. With our masking ways continuing, I happened upon a list of activities for this year’s celebration: pumpkin painting, Beggar’s Night, corn hole, Trunk or Treat, bounce house at the fire house – and that is just for the Graham area!
My mind then skipped off to the relatively low-key Halloweens of my childhood: River Road was hardly a hotspot of tricking or treating. We paraded in costume through each Concord classroom, afterwards enjoying cookies and Kool-Aid served by our room mothers. In later years it was all about the Saturday night Halloween carnival in the gym: cake walks and game booths and scary stories in the chair closet – while my dad sat on the bleachers discussing corn picking with the other farmers.
According to the UDC, in the early Boomer days right after the war, Halloween parties for Sunday School classes were quite popular. Masked children from Urbana’s Methodist Church moved through a receiving line of ghosts and participated in the Grand March, before heading down a spooky lane featuring bats and screams. Out at North Lewisburg Methodist a similar group of “ghosts, hoboes, and freaks galore” followed an enchanted tunnel into a haunted cave. Also back then, Girl Scout Troop 15 played pin-the-stem-on-the-pumpkin in the all-purpose room of Urbana’s brand-new East Elementary School.
In 1953 area churches brought to Urbana trick or treating to benefit UNICEF. Kids asked for treats of coins, which they later counted during parties at their individual churches. For many years, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund has used the money collected in those recognizable little containers to protect the world’s children from dangers such as rickets, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Merchants offer wares for any holiday. Many full moons ago, the City Bakery sold Hallowe’en cakes disguised as witches and pumpkins. A dozen ice cream molds shaped as cats and corn with husks cost $2.25 at Isaly’s, and Hopewell suggested their chocolate ice cream with ribbons of orange-flavored marshmallows for kids’ parties. Todd’s Book & Gift Shop on the Square sold everything Halloween: place cards, napkins, plates, cups. And decades ago, the Banta Bookstore carried a selection of seasonal horns and noisemakers.
Sweet treats, homemade or purchased, have always been the point of Halloween, so I checked a few prices. During my father’s youth, Gallaher sold black-and-orange jumbo gum drops for 9₵ a pound, the same price as peanut butter kisses. A quarter of a century later, it was 3₵ per chocolate candy bar at G.C. Murphy.
The Gloria has always supported Halloween spirit – and spirits. Local magician Mysterious Murphy in the 1940s appeared at midnight to coax spooky figures out of bottles, while ghosts rushed through the aisles before seating themselves next to unsuspecting patrons there in the pitch-black darkness. For 65₵ filmgoers in the 1950s attended the Gloria Ghost Convention for a shock-and-scream-inducing double feature: The Beast With a 1,000,000 Eyes and Weird Woman, the audience prewarned that no refunds were given on “complaints of ghosts in the seats”!
Clicking through the UDC archives, I found recurring references to the tricking part of Halloween, officially known as vandalism. Area police chiefs, fire chiefs, and mayors through the years exhorted costumed revelers to avoid legal punishment by avoiding illegal pranks. Just as costume styles have come and gone, so have Halloween tricks. Folks in the 1930s were annoyed by anonymous doorbell ringing and window soaping. In 1945 a corn shock on fire in the middle of Water Street riled police, as did deflated tires and stolen hubcaps. Eventually, kids began throwing objects from overpasses.
Shortly thereafter came the first reports of razor blades and needles in candy, altering long-established trick-or-treat customs. Parents began accompanying their candy-collecting children, and police stations became a stop on the Halloween circuit. Local officials also urged safety precautions: staying in groups, flameproof costumes, flashlights instead candles, visibility by means of reflective tape.
The UDC also began reporting more community Halloween festivities: parties for senior citizens and ones for the Lawnview students, an annual Box 13 Halloween Ball at the Armory, and a Hallelujah Night complete with hayride, bonfire, and wiener roast as an alternative to customary holiday events.
Today’s schools face difficult new concerns surrounding Halloween celebrations: children’s health affected by extra sugar or nut allergies, parental objection to a holiday with pagan roots, valuable academic time interrupted by a social event.
With 2020 comes the impact of COVID-19 on Halloween, just as occurred during the 1918 pandemic, when Ohio reported 190,000 cases of Spanish influenza. Gatherings around the state were banned, including Halloween events, out of concern about the dangers of allowing businesses to be wide open. Saloons and soda fountains were required to close at 8:30 PM, although some Springfield saloonists sold liquor out their back windows after hours.
Except for that brief childhood period, Halloween has never topped my list of favorite holidays. Now, more than ever, I prefer to celebrate late October according to this Robert K. Jennings poem that appeared in the UDC in 1961: Thistledown and goldenrod and ironweed’s purple feather/Fall corn in shock, split milkweed pod, and crisp blue frosty weather/Golden maple, crimson oak, and elm trees brown and sober/A flight of geese, a wisp of smoke/ Mix well – that’s God’s October.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.