How Lebanon County has celebrated Halloween across the generations

6 min read812 views and 43 shares Posted October 29, 2020

Whether you call it Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or Holler Eve, as kids did over a century ago, October 31 has always been a night of merry-making, mischief, and masquerade.

The holiday has evolved from complex European roots into a uniquely American tradition as exemplified by its history right here in Lebanon County. Take a look at how locals of past generations have had fun on this special night.

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Having a good time on “Holler Eve”

Halloween activities can be harmless, mischievous, or both. For well over a century, Lebanon has indulged in just about everything.

If the outdoors October weather wasn’t much good, there was still lots to do inside during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Social clubs, downtown stores, and private citizens alike often held well-attended special events, sales, masquerade balls, and costume parties in recognition of the Halloween season. Bobbing for apples has seemingly always been a favorite activity, with it perennially mentioned in the local papers dating back to the 1800s.

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An illustration of the always-popular bobbing for apples game in an 1864 book by Robert Chambers. (Chambers Book of Days)

Trick-or-treating had a predecessor in 1890: “masquerading in the streets, and the consequent ringing of front door bells, blowing of tin horns and making of bonfires.” The practice as we know it today has been set by officials since around the middle of the 20th century, sometimes with whole weeks set aside for locals to be on alert for children knocking on doors. Hunting the hare, a game carried over (like many other Halloween traditions) from western Europe, was popular in Lebanon as well.

Halloween isn’t all just candy and friendliness, though. Egging and toilet-papering houses might be a 20th century phenomenon, but mean-spirited pranks have long been part of the night, with an 1879 Lebanon Daily News passage describing them as “mere juvenile indulgence:”

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In some rural localities, Hallow’een is known as the corn and cabbage evening; because it is customary for the boys to fill their pockets with corn and to startle the unsuspecting inmates of every house they pass, by flinging handfuls of corn against the windows, and to ram and batter the door of some lonely spinster with a cabbage head fastened to the knob and operated by means of a string whose length permits the cunning manipulator to lie concealed at a safe distance. All Hallow Eve has consequently become the dread of all nervous women and hapless old maids. Time’s changes are not always for the better.

The Lebanon Daily News, 30 Oct. 1879

Other old-fashioned Halloween mischief included throwing lampblack (soot) and flour, removing gates, dragging carriages into quarries, and defacing property. The frequency of this kind of vandalism seems to have peaked around the turn of the century as evidenced by news reports.

The “insane practices” that took place on Halloween, as one 1905 article put it, have been the bane of law enforcement for well over a century. Lebanon Mayor Albert Garrett, in his term from 1893 to 1896, instituted a strict yearly enforcement to arrest anyone caught vandalizing or causing mischief. Officers dressed in civilian clothes on the night of the holiday to surreptitiously catch any vandals.

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Pranks are still popular today, though they’ tend to be less destructive. This man got ambushed with Silly String around Halloween, but thankfully lived to tell the tale. (The Lebanon Daily News, 29 Oct. 1995)

Superstition and tradition

The modern holiday of Halloween is unusual. The holiday itself is believed by some historians to have roots in ancient Celtic harvest celebrations like Samhain, but others believe it is strictly Christian in origin. For Christians, All Hallows’ Eve is the first day of Allhallowtide, a period of remembrance for departed “hallows” (saints), martyrs, and family members. The other two days are All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2.

It’s these origins that, aside from all the cartoony ghosts and goblins, have always given Halloween a special superstitious air. Around the turn of the century, while young men were terrorizing stay-at-homes with cabbages and corn, the young women of Lebanon set out to “trot about the block with mouths full of water, hoping to encounter their future husbands,” according to the Lebanon Daily News edition of 31 Oct., 1891.

A cut-out mask printed in the 28 Oct. 1910 edition of the Lebanon Daily News.

Another marriage-related ritual was described by the paper as follows: participants who wish to see their future spouse should take a candle and mirror and descend into the cellar at midnight, then “look into the glass and at the same time hold the light so that a reflection may be cast from behind. The person you see you will surely marry.”

Traditional foods of the autumn season include hard cider, cakes, confections, pumpkins, figs, and a variety of nuts, with chestnuts in particular being a “Halloween necessity” according to the 30 Oct. 1901 edition of the Lebanon Daily News.

The Halloween parade

One of the unusual costumes on display at the 1952 Northside Halloween parade, which lasted over two hours and spanned 30 blocks. (The Lebanon Daily News, 31 Oct. 1952)

In 1914, the Lebanon Daily News with the help of the Franklin Contracting Company set up a Halloween parade with music provided by the Tyrrell Military Band. The News provided 1,500 “false-faces” first-come-first-serve to children who didn’t have any masks on the morning of the event and hosted a costume competition (with uniqueness valued above lavishness).

The News’ parade became a yearly tradition, with mayors and councilmen often making appearances alongside local organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, and the Rotary Club. Photographer Luther G. Harpel, who the Lebanon Daily News wrote about in 2016, gave away thousands of masks to children “of all ages” who attended the parade. Local businesses also offered prizes for winning various competitions. By 1950, the tradition was drawing in over 5,000 marchers and an additional 20,000 spectators each year, according to the Lebanon Daily News.

Details of the 1932 annual Halloween parade that took place in downtown Lebanon, as printed in the Lebanon Daily News.

In the 1940s and 1950s, while parade organizers strove to keep youngsters preoccupied and away from vandalism, new techniques were in fashion, including smearing soap on windows and “chalking” private property. Still, bad behavior seemed to have been quelled, with a 1945 paper stating that Halloween celebrations “generally were suppressed during the war.”

There was a time when Halloween was a short but riotous period of pranks and destruction that was a sore trial to adults. Storekeepers and business men generally did not know what to expect the next morning and were surprised if the establishment was found to be, in the main, intact. Householders expected to find gates gone and were relieved if the fence remained. Buggies and wagons were taken apart and parts deposited on roofs and hung in trees.

The Lebanon Daily News, 16 Oct. 1945
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The parade changed sponsors multiple times throughout the decades before apparently being succeeded by the Jaycees Community Halloween Parade, though it did inspire similar events in Palmyra, Schaefferstown, Fredericksburg, Jonestown, Cornwall, Myerstown, and other municipalities.

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Though the activities and traditions have mutated as much as the holiday itself has, it would be impossible to deny that Halloween in Lebanon hasn’t carried on the communal end-of-season spirit that it did back in the 1800s. So put on a costume and raise a glass of cider: here’s to a holiday that’s joyous no matter the century.

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