Celebration – Halloween

Vintage Halloween postcard

One of my favorite holidays growing up as a kid was Halloween; I loved dressing up in the costumes, treat or treating in our neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley and then bringing home a bag filled with candy!  Today, kids celebrate the holiday by going to spooky haunted houses, trick or treating at the local mall or going to a Halloween party.

Part of the fun of Halloween was selecting the perfect costume.  Back in the 1960s, the children’s costumes were often made by their mothers or sometimes they just purchased Halloween face masks from their local stores.  Luckily my mother was very good with her sewing machine and she made most of our costumes. When I was little girl, she made a clown costume and I wore it for Halloween in 1963.  She saved that costume and when my son was about 3 years old he wore for his first Halloween.  Many years later, my daughter wore it as her Halloween costume, too.  What a lovely family tradition!  That clown costume is now almost 50 years old and I will carefully pack it away and save it for my future grandchild to wear on their first Halloween!!

1980 October - Chris  2003 Halloween - Cassie

The History of Halloween

Halloween, sometimes known as All Hallows’ Eve, is celebrated on October 31st.  It is a festive time for trick or treating, carving pumpkins, attending costume parties and maybe bobbing for apples … but what is the origin of Halloween and the meaning behind some of those traditions and customs?

Some historians say that the origins of Halloween are based in the Roman feast of Pomona or in the festival of Parentalia or the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was an old Irish celebration held at the end of summer and it was on or about October 31 or November 1.  The festival marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of preparing for the coming winter.  Centuries ago, the Samhain festival was believed to be a time when the souls of the dead came into our world and would visit the homes of their relatives, some people wore costumes to disguise themselves from the evil spirits.  The tradition of carving pumpkins may have come from the Samhain festival and the custom of carving turnip lanterns, these lanterns were used at night when the children would be lead door to door to collect food for the festival.  People would gather and light bonfires and play divination games as part of the festivities.

Halloween is also influenced by the Christian holy days of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day when the custom is to pray for the saints and the recently departed who have not yet reached Heaven.  Originally the days were celebrated in May but in the year 835 Pope Gregory IV changed the dates to November 1 and 2.  The custom known as “souling” is the tradition of baking soul cakes to honor those in purgatory, then the soul cakes are collected by the children as they go door to door.  It is believed that the souls of the departed wander our world until All Hallows’ Eve, a date which is their one last chance to seek vengeance on their enemies and this is the reason the people wore costumes to disguise themselves.  In Britain, these customs were deemed unacceptable by the Protestants during the Reformation.  So when Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on November 5, gained popularity those traditions were incorporated into that holiday.

It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th century that the Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their traditions and customs to the United States.  In the early 20th century, the holiday known as Halloween gained popularity and was celebrated nationwide regardless of people’s social, religious and racial backgrounds.

1963 Halloween - Barbara  1984 Prince Christopher of Langdon  2002 Halloween - Cassie

Halloween traditions and customs

  • The turnip lanterns were traditionally used in Ireland and Scotland for the Celtic festival of Samhain and the immigrants brought those traditions to the United States but substituted the turnip for the North American native pumpkin.  Eventually the American tradition of carving pumpkins became popular nationwide and pumpkins were grown commercially and specifically marketed for Halloween.
  • Turnip lanterns were hallowed out, carved with faces and light inside by a candle.  During the Celtic celebration of Samhain, people would set the lanterns out on their windowsills to confuse the evil spirits from entering their homes and haunting them.  For Catholic children, it was a tradition to carry jack-o-lanterns to honor the souls of the dead as they went door to door collecting the soul cakes during All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.
  • Trick or treating is usually the highlight of a children’s Halloween.  Dressed in costumes, the “treat” when the children go from house to house is asking for candy and the “trick” refers to the mischief that would happen if there was no treat!  Trick or treating became popular nationwide in the United States during the 1930s.
  • In the late 1800s in Ireland and Scotland children went “guising”, the children would dress in costumes and carrying carved turnip lanterns as they would visit homes and receive cakes, fruit or money.
  • In Medieval times there was a practice known as “mumming”.  People would wear costumes and go to door to door offering prayers for the dead in exchange for treats such as “soul cakes”.
  • Halloween costumes were traditionally ghosts, skeletons, witches and devils.  In the United States, costumes became popular in the early 20th century and the first mass-produced costumes started selling in stores in the 1930s.  Today, Halloween costumes include popular characters from storybook and comic book heroes and villians, while other more adult costumes are based on movie and television characters or sometimes current celebrities and politicians.
  • In Scotland there was a custom known as “dooking” or apple bobbing.  Apples were floated in a large basin of water and people would traditionally use their teeth to remove the apples from the basin without using their arms or hands.
  • Since Halloween is celebrated during the fall harvest season there is an abundance of apples available and during October the grocery stores will sell candy apples or caramel apples.  (Caramel apples are one of my favorite fall treats, I like them with or without peanuts!)
  • Haunted houses are a favorite Halloween entertainment activity and there are a larger number of local and national venues that offer mild to extremely scary haunted houses.  Sometimes at the venues, they will offer corn mazes and hayrides out to the pumpkin patch and at the night there can be the possibility of encountering the Headless Horseman!
  • Telling ghost stories at Halloween parties and watching horror films on DVD in the weeks leading up to Halloween can be alot of fun.  Television series will have special Halloween themed episodes or the networks will show Halloween specials, like “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”.  (Watching the Peanuts special is one of our family’s holiday traditions.  We also like to watch the “Nightmare Before Christmas” every Halloween … for more information about the Tim Burton film, please check this month’s post, Nightmare Before Christmas the Movie)

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” movie

The Nightmare before Christmas 1

One of our favorite family traditions at Halloween every year is watching “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.  I must be honest and say that when I first saw the movie I did not like it but over the years I have come to enjoy this quirky movie by Tim Burton.  When we lived in California, we also went every year to see the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland when it received the annual “Nightmare Before Christmas” overlay with the characters of Jack Skellington, Zero, Sally and Oogie featured throughout the attraction. (Please see the post, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, for more information on this iconic attraction)

Haunted Mansion Holiday 1

Tim Burton was born in Burbank, CA in 1958 and as a teenager he started making short films using the stop motion animation technique.  After graduating from Burbank High School, Burton studied at the California Institute of the Arts located in Valencia, CA.  Founded and created by Walt Disney in the early 1960s the university, known as CalArts, was created specifically for the visual and performing arts which Disney used as a resource for their future employees.  Interestingly, some of Burton’s classmates were John Lasseter and Henry Selick.

Eventually Burton went to work as a Disney animator and in 1982 he had some mild success with an animated six minute stop action short film called “Vincent”.  At this same time, Burton wrote a three page poem, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.  Disney had considered developing the idea into a short film or possibly a television special.  In 1984 Burton’s next film was a live action short called “Frankwnweenie” but shortly after the film was completed Disney thought Burton’s work was too dark and scary for children which was Disney’s target audience and he left the company.  Burton went on to direct such Warner Bros. films as “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985), “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Batman” (1989), and the 20th Century Fox film “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).

During those years, Burton kept returning to the story of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” but Disney still owned the film rights.  Finally in 1990 Burton entered into an agreement to produce a full length feature film but due to the darker theme of the film, Walt Disney Pictures had decided to release the movie under their more mature movie division, Touchstone Pictures.  Burton’s old classmate from CalArts, Henry Selick, was the film’s director and Danny Elfman, who Burton had worked with since 1984 on his previous films, collaborated on the storyline and co-wrote the songs for the movie.

The Nightmare before Christmas - filming

By 1991 Selick had organized a team of animators and began the complicated and long production of the stop action film with a crew of 120 workers using 20 sound stages in San Francisco, CA.  To film the movie they had created 227 puppets for the various characters in the movie.  Just for the character of Jack Skellington there were over four hundred heads to allow for every possible facial expression, emotion and head position.  The movement of Sally’s mouth was animated later through a different process utilizing ten different types of faces each with a series of various expressions and synchronized mouth movements.  By this time Burton was involved in a previous commitment to film “Batman Returns” (1992) and preproduction for his next film “Ed Wood” (1994).  According to Selick, because of Burton involvement with the other movies he rarely visited the set of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” during the two years it took to complete the principal filming of the movie.

The movie was released in 1993 and includes a cast of characters with the voices of Chris Sarandon as Jack Skellington (Danny Elfman provides the singing voice of Jack), Catherine O’Hara as Sally, William Hickey as Doctor Kinklestein, Ed Ivory as Santa Claus and Ken Page as Oogie Boogie.  Although the movie received positive reviews for originality it only had limited success due to the darker and quirky style of storytelling.  With the DVD release of the film in 1997 and the wonderful CD soundtrack of songs co-written by Burton and Elfman, the movie has become a popular with the general public and has proven to be a new Halloween classic.

With this increase in the movie’s popularity Disney Imagineers decided to take a chance and starting in 2001 the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland receives a seasonal overlay that blends the settings and characters of the original attraction and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.  The Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square closes for two weeks in September to be converted into “The Haunted Mansion Holiday” attraction.  “The Haunted Mansion Holiday” runs from mid September to early January then the attraction closes to have the overlay removed.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” synopsis

As the movie starts we are introduced to Halloween Town which is filled with ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches and other monsters.  Jack Skellington, also known as the Pumpkin King, is the center of the Halloween celebration but he is growing tired of the same routine every year.  While wandering in the forest he accidentally finds a portal to Christmas Town and Jack is fascinated with this new holiday.  He loves the feeling of Christmas and the idea of Santa Claus with all the gift giving traditions.  Jack decides to bring the ideas of Christmas back to Halloween Town.

Back in Halloween Town there is a rag doll women named Sally that was created by a mad scientist.  Sally has begun to fall in love with Jack, but she thinks his idea of Christmas will be disastrous. Jack enlists the help of a trio of children named Lock, Shock and Barrel to kidnap the real Santa and bring him back to Halloween Town.  Instead the trio brings Santa to Oogie Boogie who is a bogeyman with a fondness for gambling and Oogie decides to play a game with Santa’s life and he is in terrible danger.

The Nightmare before Christmas - Oogie Boogie

When Christmas Eve arrives and Jack finds out Santa is missing he decides to return to Christmas Town and Sally tries to stop Jack.  But Jack, now dressed as Sandy Claws, leaves on a sleigh made from a coffin pulled by a skeletal reindeer which is actually his ghost dog named Zero.  Sandy Claws starts to deliver presents which are not lovely gifts but scary things like shrunken heads and Christmas tree eating snakes that terrify the children.  Christmas Town is on alert and the military hunts Sandy Claws down while he is flying in his make-shift sleigh.  After the crash, news gets back to Halloween Town that Jack (Sandy Claws) is presumed dead.

The Nightmare before Christmas - Sandy Claws

Somehow Jack survives the crash and lands the cemetery.  He is sad that his Christmas plan has failed but his spirit is renewed when he begins to make new and exciting plans for next Halloween.  Finding out that the missing Santa is being held by Oogie Boogie and that when Sally tries to rescue Santa but she also gets captured, Jack tries to save them both.  Unfortunately, Oogie attacks Jack with metal playing card that keep popping up but Oogie is finally defeated and everybody is saved.

Afterwards, Santa reprimands Jack for almost ruining Christmas.  As Santa leaves Halloween Town he makes the snow fall to show that there are no hard feelings towards Jack.  The town’s people are at first confused by the snow (they have never seen it before) but then they begin to play in the snow and are very happy.  Then, Jack notices that Sally is heading towards the graveyard and he follows her and finally reveals that he loves her too.  The last scene ends with the couple kissing on the top of a large hill in the cemetery with a full moon behind them.

The Nightmare before Christmas - final scene