Southern Tradition

With McCrearyFest – our annual Octoberfest celebration – over in my hometown, that can only mean one thing:  it’s just about Halloween.  I’m already hearing kids chirping about costumes and candy and haunted houses and carving pumpkins.  It’s just around the corner.

I always think, though, that Halloween in the South is bound to be different than in other parts of the country, because, one, it tends to be a little warmer, and, two – well, if nothing else – we tend to have a higher propensity of religious fundamentalists, who denigrate the holiday as “evil.”  This, of course, might date back to some of the American origins of the observance.

The Halloween Parade marches through New Orleans, continuing the South's observance of Halloween, which began in Colonial America.

In early America, most colonies did not celebrate Halloween.  This, too, was mostly because of religion – this time, Puritanism and a disconnect from the motherland.  The holiday was viewed as not only an English tradition, which tied it to the Church of England, but also of Roman Catholic derivation.  Many even called Halloween a “pagan ritual.”

This did not always hold true in the South, however, where many colonists still clung to the Anglican Church, causing an early disconnect between North and South that gave Northerners just one more reasons to look consciously at the Southern colonies, and vice versa.  “Play parties” became the ritual in Virginia and Maryland, where entire neighborhoods would come together to celebrate the harvest, to sing, eat, play games, wear costumes, have fortune tellings, and – perhaps, most mysterious to the North – talk of the dead.

These customs continued to grow when the potato famine hit Ireland, and many Irishmen fled to the Americas, some, of course, settling in the South and bringing their Roman Catholic traditions to intermingle with those already held by Americans.  From this, the pumpkin, which grew well in American soil, was turned into the jack-o-lantern, from which sprang such re-invented Americanized folk-legends as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

But these new Southerners, not yet willing to part with their Irish (and oftentimes Scot) traditions, held massive balls to celebrate their heritage. Perhaps, from these, the Halloween party sprang to life.  Undeniably, it was at these soirées – soon to become a part of the massive ball tradition of the Antebellum South – that such modern day traditions as apple-bobbing came to be, as well as the propensity for mischief, pranks, and games, which often revolved around the old custom of fortune telling and clairvoyance.

Around the time of the war in the mid-19th Century, efforts went underway to popularize the traditions into a holiday, with public markings on nationally printed calendars, in magazines, and in newspapers.  Ultimately, Halloween was recognized as an official holiday in the United States in 1937, but that didn’t stop the old puritanical arguments surrounding it.  This time, those controversies even spread to the South.

By the 20th Century, the harmless pranks and mischief of the antebellum period became vandalism and destruction, particularly in urban areas where defacements grew past toilet papering trees.  They even took on a night of their own:  Devil’s or Mischief Night. It was around this time, as well, that religious bodies began increasingly to view the holiday as something aligned with paganism, evil, and devil worship, beliefs which some still hold today.

A 2003 release from the Baptist Press, issued by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, talked of the “acute dangers” of the Halloween holiday, and that the day should “press upon the Christian conscience.”

Halloween, Mohler said, from his influential office in Louisville, Kentucky, has become a holiday “of cultural fascination with evil and the demonic.”

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon belief, particularly among evangelicals.

Many churches, including the Anglicans who had kept Halloween alive in the American colonies, have chosen to re-focus on the night’s origins as the Christian All Saints Day, while other Protestant bodies have elected to ignore the day, rail against it from the pulpit (or the press release), or divert attention to a Reformation Day, remembering the Protestant Reformation (and, therefore, moving away from the holiday they still view as “too Catholic”).  All this despite an admittance – even from Albert Mohler – that the holiday is becoming more and more commercial and secular.  UNICEF has even focused fundraising attention on the day.  Beginning in the 1950s, the organization started a campaign to involve youths in the efforts, collecting money for underprivileged children around the world.

It is, however, the children that make Halloween what it is, today.  Costuming and trick-or-treating have grown to become family affairs, which, in many countries, they have always been.  In the Medieval world of Britain and Ireland – the very people who brought the observance to the Americas – children and the poor would dress in costumes and go door-to-door, offering their prayers in exchange for food and treats.  Despite the secularism seen from the modern holiday – Halloween is the United States’ second largest commercial holiday, profiting approximately $6.9 billion a year – these traditions hold Halloween’s ties to the Christian practices that brought it to American shores.

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Shane Gilreath

Writer/historian Shane Gilreath is a lifelong Southerner, with an ever growing repertoire, including news, government, and interpretive history. He is twice an author, was editor of The Evangel, and wrote the syndicated column "Under the Kudzu," a conservative Southerners take on world affairs. Shane calls himself a traditionalist and a sports-aholic, listing politics and cultures as particular interests. He's an award winning business owner and a graduate of Cumberland College.