31 October 1860
If it’s October 31st, you can count on hordes of ghouls, witches, fairy princesses and Jedi knights to come knocking this evening on the doors of homes across North America, shouting Trick or Treat, and expecting their pillow cases to be filled with bite-size candy bars and mini bags of potato chips or cookies. Ottawa is no exception to this seasonal shakedown with the number of children who come knocking each year varying according to the weather, the demographics of a particular neighbourhood, and parental concerns about what their kiddies might get in their sacks. For 2020, we have to add COVID-19 to the list of considerations. While some have predicted the demise of the tradition, it is likely to be with us for a long time to come, especially if candy manufacturers have anything to say about the matter.
The event is, of course, Halloween, a festival mainly celebrated across North America, and to a lesser extent in parts of the British Isles, on the last day of October. Unlike Christmas or Easter, it is not an officially recognized holiday. It is, however, catching on in other countries owing to marketing and television.
While it’s a secular celebration these days, the origin of the name is Christian—All Hallows’ Even, with “Even” being the Scottish form of “Eve.” This is the day in the Christian calendar that precedes All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. Halloween, sometimes spelt Hallowe’en, is a time when supposedly the veil between this world and the hereafter thins. Some believed that the recently dead came back to revisit their homes and loved ones.
While Christian in name, the festival appears to have long roots. Some folklorists say it originated in celebrations of Pamona, the Roman goddess of fruits and orchards. Others place Halloween’s roots squarely in pre-Roman Celtic times, and are related to the celebration of Samhain, which marked the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest. With the days getting shorter, this was a time associated with death and the supernatural. Evil spirits that might haunt the living could only be warded off by bonfires and other propitiatory rituals.
In subsequent Christian times, Samhain morphed into the celebration of “Hallowtide,” which coincided with the commencement of the autumn slaughter of livestock. According to Nicholas Rogers, who wrote the definitive book on Halloween, this was also an occasion for merriment when young men played football with animal bladders. It also marked a time of misrule, when ordinary behaviour was upended, with masked and costumed people parading through the streets demanding “tribute” from passersby.
These Halloween traditions were brought to North America by the wave of Irish and Scottish immigrants who flooded into the United States and Canada during the second half of the nineteenth century. According to Nicholas Rogers, there was little or no reference to Halloween in American almanacs prior to that time.
The first reference that I could find to Halloween being celebrated in Ottawa occurred in 1860. An article in the Ottawa Citizen in November 1860 reported that on 31 October of that year a celebration of “the anniversary of this ancient festival” was held by a number of citizens who “partook of an excellent dinner provided by ‘mine host’ of the Grand River Hotel, Mr. James Salmon.” Songs and speeches followed the meal, “and formed an entertainment [that] seemed to be enjoyed most heartily by all present.” (The Grand River Hotel was a hostelry located at the corner of Sussex and Clarence Streets, frequented in particular by farmers coming into the city to sell their products at the Byward Market.) A few years later, the Caledonian Society held a Halloween Festival at which forty-three people competed in a poetry competition. “Maggie,” presumably the name of the poem, won first prize. A “gold medal certificate of honorary membership and a complementary address” were given to vocalist Mr. Kennedy and a locket and chain to Miss Kennedy.
By the 1870s and 1880s, Halloween was widely celebrated in the nation’s capital. The celebrations seemed to divide into three distinct activities. For adults, there were galas and balls held in the major hotels. Scottish groups such as the Caledonian Society and the Sons of Scotland were prominent hosts, as were fraternal organizations, such as the Ancient Order of United Workmen. (The A.O.U.W. was an American-based group that provided social and financial support for its members in the event of sickness or death.) In 1883, the Governor General’s Foot Guards hosted a gala ball at the Drill Hall. More than 600 people attended, with a program of dance music provided by the Guards’ Band and that of the 43rd Regiment. This was a dress event with the Guards resplendent in their crimson uniforms and medals.
For youngsters, Halloween became second only to Christmas in terms of fun and excitement. Halloween parties, complete with jack-o-lanterns, corn stalks, witch decorations, and orange and black streamers, were held in homes across the city. Nuts and apples, not candy, featured prominently at the parties. A favourite activity was bobbing for apples, or trying to bite apples suspended from strings without touching them. Girls tried their hand at divination to predict who they were to marry. There were many techniques. One was to enter a dark room backwards holding a lit candle and to look over your shoulder into a mirror. It was said that the shadow cast by the candle in the mirror provided an outline of your future spouse. Another favoured divining technique was to throw apple peelings over your left shoulder and to try to read the initials of your future spouse in the shapes the peelings made on the floor.
Roasting chestnuts over a grate and popping corn were other methods of fortune telling. Two chestnuts burning slowly side by side on the fireplace grate augured a happy marriage, while two that popped suggested strife. While waiting for corn to pop, youngsters chanted a spell that went something like:
“Fire, fire burn your best,
As my fortune there, I test,
Every kernel popping white
Makes my fortune fine and bright,
Every kernel scorched and black
Sets a goblin on my track.”
For male teenagers, Halloween became a time of juvenile hijinks. At a time when behaviour was strictly controlled and entertainment limited, Halloween was the one day in the year when society’s strictures were eased and boys could cut loose. With masks ensuring anonymity, youth took to the streets and caused mayhem. Shooting peas at windows and at passersby was de rigueur. If it provoked somebody to give chase, all the better. Upsetting outhouses and raiding gardens became clichés of the festival. In 1875, boys took of the gates to the home of Alderman Rocque on Rideau Street and threw them into the middle of the road. Fences in the neighbourhood were torn down while gate handles were daubed with red paint. The following year, vandals blocked Bank Street with pulled down fences, stumps, boards and commercial signs. Out in the country, things could get worse. In 1875 in Masham, Quebec, cellars were plundered, stables were ransacked, and potatoes set aside for the winter were stolen.
In 1881, rowdy boys upset a pile of bricks outside of the Opera House just when the audience was exiting. The Citizen complained that it was lucky nobody had tripped and hurt themselves. The newspaper demanded that the boys be prosecuted if they could be found.
But nothing beats the experience of poor Mr. Alphonse Frappier, a retired real estate agent, of Eastview (now Vanier) in 1921. While he was sleeping, boisterous youths broke into his home and dumped him out of bed. His bed was then taken outside and placed on top of a nearby telephone pole. The following year, Frappier demanded and received police protection.
Halloween 1919, the first after the end of the Great War, was particularly boisterous with the streets filled with partyers. Like today, elves, witches, princesses and tramps abounded. However, in keeping with the times, children also dressed as Red Cross nurses and soldiers complete with wound stripes and long service ribbons. Most of the mayhem that year was petty stuff—windows shelled with peas, door bells rung, and a few gates removed. There were however numerous hold-ups by boys dressed as baggy-trousered bashi-bazouks—irregular Ottoman soldiers noted for their indiscipline and for raiding civilian populations. The Citizen reported that the bashi-bazouks let their victims go after extorting “small ransoms.”
To keep order, police force in the region were put on full alert for the night. During the mid-1930s, police leave was cancelled and all of Ottawa’s twenty-five patrol cars were out keeping watch on the crowds of revellers on city streets, ready to respond in the event of complaints of rowdiness. Private cars owned by police were also pressed into service. On the Quebec side, a 9 pm curfew was strictly enforced for children under 16 years of age. In Hull, the start of the curfew was announced by the hooter going off at the city’s waterworks. Despite such precautions, widespread property damage was reported in 1935, including the breaking of 40 street lights in the Glebe and Ottawa South where youths untethered the pully wires that suspended the globes. There were also three false fire alarms.
It’s hard to say when door-to-door “trick-or-treating” started in Ottawa. Certainly by 1912 it seems to have become an accepted part of the Halloween tradition. A Citizen article that year reported that many home owners in the city placed jack-o-lanterns in their front windows to invite costumed children to come and share the apples. Note that children came to collect apples rather than candy. While candy featured in Halloween parties, handing out candies at the door seems to have started in earnest only after World War II, encouraged by the confectionary industry. However, even then apples continued to be the traditional treat, no doubt much to the chagrin of many pint-sized ghosts and ghouls.
Apples largely disappeared from the Halloween tradition in the late 1960s and early 1970s owing to fears of sabotage. In 1967, it was reported that an Eastview girl had been given an apple with needles pushed into it. In 1972, there were reports of apples injected with crushed glass or booby-trapped with razor blades. Candies too were not spared. An eight-year old Ottawa boy was reportedly hospitalized in 1968 after he had eaten candy-coated pills that looked like Smarties. Similar stories in the press across the continent led to another Halloween ritual—the parental checking of kiddies’ loot. Of course, this required the occasion taste test just to make sure.
Ottawa children began to collect money for the United Nations’ International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in 1955, five years after the programme started in the United States. That first year, instead of being furnished with the characteristic orange UNICEF collection boxes, children used milk cartons donated by Ottawa dairies to collect change door to door. In July 2000, the Canadian government proclaimed 31 October National UNICEF Day. In 2006, UNICEF collection boxes were retired in favour of in-school fundraising. Three years later, collections raised by Canadian children had surpassed $100 million.
Today, Halloween remains a popular festival. While it continues to be a much-anticipated event for young children, it has also become a popular celebration among adults just as it was more than a century ago. According to Nicholas Rogers, 65 per cent of American adults participated in Halloween in the early 2000s, not counting handing out candies at the door. Fortunately, the traditional mayhem wrought by young males had largely subsided.
Ottawa Citizen, 1860. “Halloween,” 2 November.
——————, 1875. “Juvenile Depredations,” 1 November.
——————, 1875. “Masham,” 10 November.
——————, 1876. “Blocked Up,” 1 November.
——————, 1881. “Rowdy Boys,” 1 November.
——————, 1882. “Halloween,” 30 October.
——————, 1883. “Governor-General’s Foot Guards’ Ball,” 1 November.
——————, 1886. “Complaint,” 1 November.
——————, 1887. “Annual Anniversary, A.O.U.W.” 31 October.
——————, 1892. “2’nd Annual Halloween Concert, Sons of Scotland,” 31 October.
——————, 1893. “Halloween Pranks,” 1 November.
——————, 1912. “Hallowe’en Celebrated,” 1 November.
Ottawa Journal, 1900. “Dunking For Apples,” 31 October.
——————, 1900. “Halloween At The Normal,” I November.
——————, 1900. “Hallowe’en Favors,” 29 October.
——————, 1902. Hallowe’en; Its Customs,” 31 October.
——————-, 1909. “Halloween Hints and Some Ideas for Entertainment,” 30 October.
——————-, 1912. “Hallowe’en Night, 2 November.
——————-, 1919. “King Revelry Reigned For Halloween,” 1 November.
——————-, 1922. “Broad Sense Of Humor Is Shown In Eastview,” 19 October.
——————-, 1935. “Every Policeman In Ottawa on Duty For Hallowe’en,” 31 October.
——————-, 1935. “Wide Celebration Brings Complaints Of Much Mischief,” 1 November.
——————-, 1946. “More Candy and Apples in Ottawa Stores for Hallowe’en Ghosts and Goblins,” 30 October.
——————-, 1953. “Lively Hallowe’en Moderate Fuel Bill,” 31 October.
——————-, 1955. “Shell-out For UNICEF At Hallowe’en,” 22 October.
——————-, 1967. “Eastview Girl Given Apple With Needle,” 3 November.
——————-, 1972. “… And for human ghouls,” 28 October.
Rogers, Nicholas, 2002. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press.
UNICEF, 2019. Halloween Fundraising, https://www.unicef.org/support/14884.html.