Halloween Celebrations

Celebrations— Despite its reputation in many parts of the world as a somber or placid day, ALL SAINTS’ DAY and Halloween also have a history of large-scale celebrations as old as the holidays themselves.

SAMHAIN was celebrated with a great fair at Tara, which lasted for several days and included races, contests, markets and feasting. Fairs were once popular at Halloween time, just as CARNIVALS are today. For example, a great fair was recorded at Chateaurenard, near Avignon; the fair was used to open All Saints’ Day, and was one of three special feasts celebrated there throughout the year. HALLOW-FAIR is still an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, indicating the great popularity of fairs at Halloween; Hallowmas Fair in Edinburgh was an early celebration, recorded in the Edinburgh Charters in 1507 (it’s still held today, and the traditional Hallowfair gingerbread is still sold there). ALL SOULS’ DAY also had its own celebrations, often called SOUL-MASS hirings, since farmers hired their help for the next season there.

Halloween has been celebrated in America with large-scale celebrations since the beginning of the twentieth century; these events were often organized by townships or cities. Although these celebrations were often organized originally to provide an alternative to PRANKING, they now serve more to promote an area and to provide an outlet for local retailers, since they usually feature food and merchandise vendors.

Contemporary Halloween celebrations owe a large debt to GAY CULTURE, which has been mainly responsible for creating the three largest: The Greenwich Village PARADE (which boasts over two million participants and spectators, and is broadcast live internationally); the 10-day “Fantasy Fest” in Key West, Florida; and Halloween night in West Hollywood, California (which calls itself America’s largest outdoor Halloween celebration, and features live entertainment, COSTUME contests, and a highly-charged party atmosphere).

Many Halloween celebrations emphasize charity events. Halloween in New Orleans has become a large benefit celebration, with at least three nights of masquerades, balls, and parties (as well as the unorganized but large-scale Halloween night activities on the streets of the French Quarter). In the past, New Orleans Halloweens have raised over $2 million for charities in a single season.

ANOKA, Minnesota, calls itself “the Halloween capital of the World,” a title officially sanctioned by Congress. It dates back to 1920, and features three parades, costume contests and more. However, the unofficial American Halloween capital must certainly be Salem, Massachusetts. In addition to being a destination point for practitioners of WICCA and other NEO-PAGANS, Salem also features 24 days of Haunted Happenings, including Costume Balls, walking tours and costume contests.

Anaheim, California, started a unique Halloween celebration in 1923: a window decorating contest among local businesses (window painting contests may have originally been instituted as an alternative to having the windows soaped or waxed on Halloween). The city also hosts a parade (because Anaheim is home to Disneyland, parades since the late 1950s have included Disney-themed floats) and a Halloween costume pancake breakfast.

Celebrations may also include or center on HALLOWEEN ATTRACTIONS such as PUMPKIN PATCHES, CORN MAZES, or HAUNTED HOUSES. Similar to haunted houses are TRAILS OF TERROR. Trails of terror have a history dating back 70 years, and a number of communities across the U.S. still host these popular outdoor activities. There are also PUMPKIN festivals held throughout both Canada and the United States.

The favored spots for children’s Halloween celebrations over the last few years have been ZOOS; many zoos throughout North America offer a “Boo at the Zoo” event, and the Louisville Zoo claims to host “The World’s Largest Halloween Party,” catering to costumed children and drawing around 90,000 guests.

The largest Canadian Halloween celebration formerly took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was known as “Mardi Gras.” Started in 1981, by 1984 the event attracted 15,000, with sections of streets blocked off; events include costume contests, dancing, and food and drink. By 1987, Halifax’s “Mardi Gras” drew 40,000, but numbers diminished after police tried to clamp down on drunkenness. The Mardi Gras was ended in 1995, although some local merchants have tried to resurrect it.

Although Irish and Scottish BONFIRE and FIREWORKS celebrations have sometimes been sponsored by civic authorities as well, most European Halloween celebrations are considerably smaller than their American counterparts. In Ireland, Derry hosts what is known as “Ireland’s first and number one Halloween Carnival”; in addition to “Ghost Tours of Haunted Derry,” on October 31st the city hosts a gigantic free street party. The BBC wryly noted about Derry’s street carnival that “people out of costume [are] considered abnormal.”

There are only a few large-scale Halloween celebrations in continental Europe, and they’re far smaller than their American brethren. The Frankenstein Festival in Germany purports to be the largest European celebration, and is held during the last three weekends at the site of Castle Frankenstein (an American group called “Tours of Terror” began hosting Halloween trips to “Dracula’s castle” in Romania in 1998). The town of Retz, Austria, holds an annual Halloween festival (Kürbisfest), complete with pumpkins and a Halloween-Umzug (“Halloween PAGEANT”); in fact, the area around Retz is now known for its annual pumpkin harvest.

Celebrations can occasionally turn ugly: One of the earliest examples dates back to 1900, when University of Toronto students held their annual informal parade (a practice since 1884); after receiving complaints of mild vandalism and rowdy behavior, police restricted the students to campus. Boulder, Colorado’s Halloween Mall Crawl was popular until 1989, when riots led to vandalism, drunkenness, fighting, and concerns over public safety. Some stores began to board up their doors and windows; by 1993 police succeeded in essentially ending the event that once drew nearly 40,000. San Francisco’s annual Castro Street revel turned into a riot in 1994, when anti-gay protesters tried to interrupt the festivities; police detained nearly a hundred people and confiscated several loaded guns.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved