From the Archives: Early Halloween Celebrations at HPU

-blog post by Leanne Jernigan, Wanek Center Librarian

Halloween is just around the corner, and with it comes a chill in the air, spooky decor, pumpkins galore, scary movies, enormous spiders, all the candy we can eat, and [maybe?] adorable trick-or-treaters. This makes me wonder, however, did we always celebrate Halloween this way? In this post, we will dive into the library’s online resources to learn a little about the origins of Halloween, and a lot about some of the many fun ways HPU’s students celebrated during the college’s early years.

Beginning in Credo Reference, we learn that like most holidays we celebrate, Halloween has roots in early European festivals going back over 2000 years. Most cultures observe a day to commemorate their dead, as well as a fall harvest festival, and Halloween seemed to emerge as a combination of the two.

The evolution of the name itself reflects the complex history of the holiday:

There are many names for Halloween, including Halloweve, Halleve, Hallowtide, Hollandtide, Hallowmas, November Eve, Holy Eve, Whistle Wassail Night, and Hallowe’en. The modern name “Halloween” (for the festival celebrated on October 31) derives from “All Hallows’ Even,” or the night before All Saints’ or “All Hallows’ Day.” The word “hallow” is from an early English word for “holy,” and until about a.d. 1500 “hallow” was a noun commonly applied to a holy personage or saint. “All Hallows’ Even” was first abbreviated to “Hallowe’en,” and sometime in the mid-twentieth century the use of the apostrophe was dropped, leading to the contemporary name for the holiday. (Morton, 2011)

 

“Hallowe’en” Parties & Pranks, 1920s & 30s

(WorthPoint, 2020)

In America, Victorian middle class popularized the seasonal “Hallowe’en party” with Martha Russell Orne’s publication of the 1898 Hallowe’en: How to Celebrate It. The fashionable holiday was then celebrated exclusively by adults, and costuming was popular (Morton, 2011). High Point College was founded in 1924, and indeed the first successful search of the Hi-Po (student newspaper) archives for “Hallowe’en” (keywords are important–Halloween without the apostrophe had no results!) turned up evidence of a party–held not by and for students but for faculty at a faculty member’s house. The article (see below) was playfully titled “Faculty Members See Real Spooks,” and featured ghosts, guessing games, and fortune telling. “Even the psychology professor,” the article reads, “was impressed with the strange psychological phenomena demonstrated by the fortune teller.”

American youth, however, were keen to pick up the Irish “pranking” tradition as a way to celebrate–a practice which grew in popularity and intensity during the early decades of the twentieth century, peaked during the Great Depression, and grew increasingly destructive (Morton, 2011).

High Point College was no exception, and the next article, published on the front page of the November 9, 1927 issue of the Hi-Po, is called “Hallowe’en Prowlers Make Nocturnal Raid.” It describes an incident where a group of male students moved all the chairs out of the dining hall and hid them around the building. In the morning, students and faculty arrived for breakfast to find they had been “tricked.” The article describes the chaos that ensued and ended with an expression of gratitude that Hallowe’en only happens once a year.

The following year (1928), an article was published called “Rah Rah Boys Rush Hallowe’en Crowds,” describing an incident that took place off campus:

During the fore part of the evening the rah rah boys were busy mustering forces and consuming courage for a display of anything unusual. Under the leadership of Rag Tail Perdue a goodly number, with faces flushed, swung down the main thoroughfare like so many gladiators lying waste to everything that happened to straggle into their path. . . At a late hour the warriors returned to the campus much the worse for their escapade. (HPC, 1928)

Perhaps as an attempt to curb such antics (a nationwide goal which ultimately resulted in the shift to Halloween being marketed as a children’s holiday [Morton, 2011]), the college administration began planning an “official” Hallowe’en party for students to be held in the college gymnasium in 1933.

An article published the following week (transcribed below for easy reading) describes the festivities in detail:

 

College Party Celebrates All-Hallow’s Eve.

Harrison Gymnasium Scene of Fall Fete in Which Many Students and Faculty Participate.

Starting in a literal burst of fire as the witch leaped through the flames onto the floor of the Harrison gymnasium, the first official College Hallowe’en party ran through several too-short hours of fun for the great number of guests who appeared masked and ready for the program which had been planned. More than three hundred members of the College population were present.

The master of ceremonies summoned all to silence, as lightning flashed through the darkened gymnasium. Then from a huge yellow pumpkin at the north end, the witch, in the person of Dr. Bowen, leaped wildly into mid-air, and the orchestra which had been concealed blared out the first strains.

TRADITIONAL GAMES PLAYED

The program was on. The entertainment, and decorating committees had done their work; dozens of apples were suspended on slender cords from the high roof, and there was considerable twisting of necks in order to bite these. All about the walls, jack-o’-lanterns grinned at the revelers; corn in the shock, and huge kettles of fruit-punch placed on red fires which had no power of heating, were presided over by witches. Off to one side, Madame Whoozis, famed foreteller of future events, gazed into the crystal recounted to many a quivering questioner those strange events which the years to come will bring to pass. Even more gruesome than that was the narrow, darkened cell, in which pieces of human bodies were passed around so that all those who wished might handle them.

The first race was the old standby, in which sacks are used. A number of courageous couples started out on the course, the race finally being won by Miss Varner and Mr. Moser, who displayed rare courage and agility in accomplishing the feat. Many blind-folded guests tried to tail the cat, but this was achieved only by Miss Fay Holt. In the peanut race, so popular that the contestants made it necessary two heats, Mr. Al Thompson and young Robert Reynolds won the prizes.

Then a march was started back and forth before the judges’ stand and those people whose costumes were outstanding were drawn aside. Then, Miss Lindsay directing the procession, a second eliminating march was executed. At last the judges rendered a unanimous decision in favor of Miss Gladys Maxwell and Mr. Curtiss Humphreys, as being the most interestingly dressed people present. Strange as it was, these two not having come to the party together, that Miss Maxwell was dressed in the 1890 styles, and Mr. Humphreys portrayed men’s costumes of the same period.

Ben James as Mephisto added greatly to the enjoyment of everyone, and Dr. Bower’s witch left little to be desired. It was a good party, and more than one guest wished fervently that it might prove to be only the first of many at the College this season.

The party was so successful that it became a seasonal tradition, coinciding with a waning interest in less wholesome activities taking place “up town.” Fun fact: The skeleton used for human anatomy lessons was a special guest at these parties. You can see him (her?) happily posing with the Pre-Medical Society in the image at the top of the page.

 

The Halloween Carnival: 1940s – 1970s

Various one-off celebrations popped up throughout the years, including some interesting Halloween-themed debates among the literary societies in the 1930s. Topics debated: “Are black cats more furious than bats? Are witches more terrorizing than ghosts? Are pumpkins better for pies than jack-o-lanterns?” Also mentioned are poetry readings, dinners, a Halloween Ball (1951), square dance (1959), an “international Halloween party” (1964) and several spooky productions (Dracula, for example) presented by the “Tower players” and the theater department.

By far the most pervasive, however, was the carnival which started coming to campus in the early 30’s around the same time the “official campus Halloween party” took hold. Naturally over the next few years the two celebrations merged to become the “Halloween Carnival”–a tradition which persisted for decades to come (with the exception of the war years when resources were not available for festivities). The carnival was originally held in the gym but moved outside when the weather permitted. Student organizations contributed various booths, and the event was open to the public, much like our Community Christmas of recent years. Booths in 1954 included “spook shows, games, contests, hot dawg stands, candied apples, and sassafras tea.” Things got significantly scarier as the years progressed, however–from the wholesome fun and games depicted in the image from the 1950s carnival (right) to the disturbing clown from the 1970s (below) taken from the 1974 Zenith yearbook. (We also finally get to see the Fortune Teller in action!)

After a good run of over 60 years, the last mention of the Halloween Carnival occurs in the Campus Chronicle in 1996, in a “Letter to the Editor” lamenting the student publication’s lack of coverage of the event: “Over 18 campus organizations, 186 kindergartners and all live residence halls came together for what was probably the most unifying event to be held on this campus in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here” (Corbett, 1996). Fast-forward to the present, and although this long-running tradition has faded into HPU history, one thing remains true: Halloween today is all about the kids. While trick-or-treating may or may not happen and celebrations around the High Point campus and community are likely to very look different this year due to COVID-19, at least wearing a mask will feel more natural than ever.

Happy Halloween!

 

References

Corbett, K. (1996, February 1). Halloween Carnival received little attention from Chronicle [Letter to the editor]. Campus Chronicle, 3(6), 2. https://cdm16929.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16929coll6/id/129/rec/7

Goblin, H. (1954, October 2). Halloween Carnival planned for HP College next Friday night. The Hi-Po, 29(2), 1. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/hi-po/1940_50/1954-hi-po-FallSemester.pdf

High Point College. (1926, November 27). Faculty members see real spooks. The Hi-Po, 1(3), 2. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/hi-po/1920_30/1926-hi-po-FallSemester.pdf

High Point College. (1927, November 9). Hallowe’en prowlers make nocturnal raid. The Hi-Po, 2(8), 1. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/hi-po/1920_30/1927-hi-po-FallSemester.pdf

High Point College. (1927). Pre-Medical Society [Image]. The Zenith 1, 82. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/Zenith/The_zenith_1927.pdf

High Point College. (1928, November 8). Rah Rah Boys rush Hallowe’en crowds. The Hi-Po, 3(8), 2. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/hi-po/1920_30/1928-hi-po-FallSemester.pdf

High Point College. (1933, November 1.) College party celebrates All-Hallow’s Eve. The Hi-Po, 8(6), 1. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/hi-po/1920_30/1933-hi-po-FallSemester.pdf

High Point College. (1974). Halloween Carnival 1973 [Images of clown and fortune teller]. The Zenith 48, 27. http://library.highpoint.edu/archives/Zenith/The_zenith_1974.pdf

Morton, L. (Ed). (2011). Halloween origins and development. In The Halloween encyclopedia (2nd ed.). McFarland. Credo Reference: https://libproxy.highpoint.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mcfhallo/halloween_origins_and_development/0?institutionId=2970

WorthPoint. (2020). [Image of Halloween antique book 1898 How to Celebrate]. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/halloween-antique-book-1898-celebrate-1888362647