Trick-Or-Treat – Halloween at the Turn of the Century

Although the history of Halloween can be traced back to Celtic celebrations approximately 2000 years ago, the more secular traditions that we associate today with Halloween began during the late 1800s.

From the archival collection, three sisters dressed for Halloween, early 20th century (A019.1.20)


By the start of the 20th century, Halloween had all but lost most of its superstitions and religious overtones.  At this time, Halloween became a community event where neighbours would get together for corn-popping parties, taffy pulls and hayrides.  Party goers would play games such as apple-bobbing or snap apple.  The object of snap apples was to take a bit out of an apple suspended by string.  To make it more difficult, it was sometimes played with the apple tied to one end of the stick and a lighted candle on the other end of the stick.  The stick would be hung to the ceiling by a string tied to the middle and the whole thing was then twirled.  The player was to bite the apple and avoid being burned by the candle.


The parties were an opportunity for dancing and spending time with those one may have fancied.  Another popular game made use of apple seeds to determine who would “get the girl.”  Two young men who fancied the same girl would stick an apple seed on each of her cheeks.  The one whose apple seed fell off first would “lose the girl” to the other suitor.


Practical jokes were also part of these celebrations.  Children would make scary noises in the dark, soap windows of neighbouring homes and perhaps even hide animals from their owners.  Just as it is today, this aspect of the Halloween celebrations was not welcomed by those affected by the pranks.


Aspects of the superstitions that were once an important part of the celebrations were and are still a part of the Halloween celebrations.  For example, the act of dressing up in costumes was based on the belief that spirits of the dead walked with earth on Allhallows Eve, and costumes would protect ones’ identity from these wondering spirits.

A Columbus Hallowe’en

Originally appeared in the Whitby Gazette Chronicle, November 15, 1928

On the evening of Nov. 2nd about 85 children, young people and adults, from Columbus gathered in the town hall for a Hallowe’en party.  The hall was decorated with cats, owls and pumpkins, and orange and black streamers.  The “Horror Hall” and “Fortune telling” attracted much attention.  Three judges from Oshawa, Mr. and Mrs. Rodd and Mr. Parrott awarded the costume prizes to Elma Ross for the best child’s costume and Miss D. Clugston for the best adult costume.  The evening was then spent in games.  Mrs. Harold Hayes, Mrs. Clarence Hayes and Mrs. Bromell were the hostesses.  Following the games a delightful lunch was served, composed of sandwiches, cake, pie, candy, etc. At 11pm all left for home.

Our teacher, Miss Appleby, wishes to thank all who in any way contributed to the success of the party, and to those who helped clean the hall.

From the Oshawa Museum’s archival collection

Reflections of All Hallow’s Eve Past

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

Halloween has always been one of my favourite times of year. I was always the kid who decided what they wanted to dress up as the day after trick-or-treating. And what kid doesn’t love candy? I have fond memories of my family carving the family pumpkins. We would draw out different faces on the newsprint, but Dad always had a few tricks up his sleeve – corn husk hair, a gourd for a Gonzo nose or a pipe. And of course we had the vintage looking pumpkin trick-or-treat buckets.

Angela and Jill carving pumpkins, 2004
Angela and Jill carving pumpkins, 2004

My mom would sew all of our costumes or re-purpose them to suit my brother or sister or I. It was always fun when the box of costumes came out; it was just like Mr. Dressup’s tickle trunk! One of my earliest memories of Halloween was dressing up like an angel. With homemade, foil covered wings and a silver elasticized headband and my Mom’s pure 80s blue eye shadow plastered on. So much fun! Later it was exciting when I got to go trick-or-treating with my older sister and her friends – the cool kids. We got to stop at their houses and their parents would check our candy and let us eat some. I loved dressing up so much that I think I was in grade 8 or 9 before I gave up to hand out candy. But even then I would get dressed up.

Jill at Halloween 2004
Jill at Halloween 2004

When I came to work at the Museum, one of the first things I got to work on was Halloween at the Harbour. The Museum would set up various stations and invite families to get dressed up and come down to participate in things like pumpkin painting, mad scientist laboratories and spooky stories. The entire staff would get dressed up, even Laura – the Executive Director!

Over the years we tried many variations of Halloween at the Harbour; daytime, night time, just harvest-themed activities, harvest and Halloween. You name it, we’ve tried it. This was always a great time to see volunteers and make community connections. Algoma Orchards, Ian Critchell – the Beeman, D &D Exotics, Geissberger Farmhouse Cider and Spirit Matters have all taken part in Halloween at the Harbour over the years.

I’ve only missed one Halloween at the Harbour since 2002. In 2011 I had just given birth to my first child three weeks early and left Museum staff in a bit of a lurch when it came to planning the last minute details! Sadly (for me) 2012 was our last Halloween at the Harbour. Times had changed in the ten years I had been participating in the event and we decided to focus on other kinds of programming that engaged more than just children.

Melissa, Jenn & Jill, Halloween 2012
Melissa, Jenn & Jill, Halloween 2012

I feel lucky to have been able to keep my love of Halloween alive for all these years. There aren’t many people who go to work and dress up for Halloween programming like we did at the Museum. And I feel lucky that I will be able to share these amazing memories I have from my childhood and adulthood with my own children, who are just starting to get into the Halloween spirit.



The witches fly
Across the sky,
The owls go, “Who? Who? Who?”
The black cats yowl
And green ghosts howl,
“Scary Halloween to you!”
–Nina Willis Walter

From the staff at the Oshawa Community Museum we wish you a spooky, safe and FUN Halloween!


From the Druids to Draculas – The History of Halloween

Before the night is taken over by little ghouls and goblins going door to door trick-or-treating, the Oshawa Museum thought it would be appropriate for us to take a look at the history of All-Hallows-Eve.  Many thanks to our Durham College Library and Information Technology student Lee for authoring this lookback at Halloween!


Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic people and the festival of Samhain (sow-in). The Celts lived on what is now Ireland, the UK and France. It was a festival Harvest when animals were brought back from pasture for the winter and necessary measures were taken to get ready for the winter. As well they would use this time to light bonfires and wear costumes to scare away ghosts. It was also believed ghosts and spirits returned to the earth and caused pain and misery to mortals, although the also thought that spirits would make it easier for the druids (priests/fortune tellers) to tell the future.  The Druids would light bonfires to commemorate the event  where they burnt offerings to the spirits and wore costumes consisting of animal heads and garb.


Once the Romans conquered most of the Celtic territory they picked up customs from them so they would combine there with the Celts. They had two days one to worship Feralia and another Pomona. On these days in late February were to commemorate the dead and the second was just to honor Ponoma whose symbol was an apple so people would bob for apples. Historians speculate that it’s where we get our bobbing for apples tradition.


Later the Catholic church would take the All Saints day and move it November 1, this was when they honored the saints and the dead and the day after November 2 was all souls day which was the celebration of the dead so as they became to fully join with the Celtics areas they became to adopt some of the traditions they celebrated but it still was not on October 31 like todays Halloween but by that time the night before All saints day (Oct 31) was a night they believed the evil spirits arose.

In Medieval times in the big cities on All Saints ’ Day people would also dress up and go door to door begging for scraps and sugar. It was not considered socially acceptable but it was a tradition people slowly started to warm up to.


Once people began settling in North America people began meeting with natives and celebrating with them for harvest. But they were not celebrating All Saints eve or the begging on All Saints eve During the Potato Famine with new Irish settlers they became to assimilate the All Saints eve celebration into the Harvest Festival to celebrate the dead, they also began to wear the costumes. It also helped popularize the celebration and bring it national stage. It was met with some resistance though as Americans and most Canadians believed begging was socially unacceptable. Even in  1948 in New York the Madison Square Boys club started a parade while they held a banner saying “American Boys don’t beg”. But the earliest known time in Canada was in Kingston Ontario in 1911 where the local newspaper reported young children going door to door asking for sugar. Eventually after WWII Halloween would become what it is today but not before a long period where kids would have to tell parents and owners of households what was going and what they were supposed to be doing.
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