Although Halloween is thought of as a fun and frivolous holiday today, it has taken time to evolve. In the United States, it began in the 18th and 19th centuries when European immigrants (usually from the Celtic regions) brought their traditions with them. The emphasis was very much on “tricks,” such as stringing ropes along darkened sidewalks to trip pedestrians or tying opposing doorknobs together in an apartment hallway.
In the late 1800s, pranks had a destructive edge to them, ranging from coating church pews with molasses to the time 200 boys in Washington, D.C. attacked well-dressed citizens on streetcars with bags of flour.
But the biggest prank of all time induced real panic in some communities in 1938. A 23-year-old actor/writer/producer named Orson Welles staged the well-known science fiction novel, War of the Worlds, as a news event on national radio. Despite disclaimers at the beginning of the broadcast noting that it was a presentation of the Mercury Theater, many tuned in late and – since it sounded exactly like a news broadcast, complete with “bulletins” – were convinced that they were hearing actual reports of an alien invasion from Mars on the East Coast.
Although it was never Welles’ intention to cause a panic (indeed, once word reached the studios that people were taking the broadcast as real, he broke character on the air and reminded the audience that it was a radio play), it did force broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission to implement safeguards to ensure that “bulletins” would only be used for real news events.
The movement toward the Halloween we recognize today began to take shape in the 1950s, with the Donald Duck cartoon Trick or Treat being one of the first examples of children receiving treats. As Americans moved to the suburbs, the concept of going door-to-door in neighborhoods evolved. By 1965, Halloween costumes and candy had become a $300 million industry.
Since then, Halloween has exploded to become the second-largest commercial holiday (after Christmas) in the United States. Between candy, costumes, parties and greeting cards, it’s estimated that Americans will spend more than $9 billion. I guess you could say that’s quite a treat for the economy.
Speaking of a treat, I offered you one in the headline. How many of you remember “trick or treat for UNICEF?” I remember getting an orange piece of cardboard at school every year, which we would fold into a box. We’d take the boxes with us when we went trick-or-treating and collect (mostly) pennies by saying “trick or treat for UNICEF” (of course after we got our candy treat).
UNICEF was an acronym for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, established after World War II to improve the general welfare of children, particularly those affected by the war. It’s now officially the United Nations Children’s Fund, although they still use the UNICEF abbreviation.
I was wondering what happened to “trick or treat for UNICEF” because it doesn’t seem as visible as it was when I was a child. Happily, your child (or grandchild in some cases) can still trick or treat for UNICEF by making your own collection box or cannister (make a label here) and taking donations. You can then either send in your donations or just take them to a Coinstar machine and use the code “5555” to send those donations (without a fee) directly to UNICEF.
Since the first UNICEF Day was declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, those pennies have turned into more than $175 million raised for UNICEF in the United States. I’m happy to report that this tradition continues, and I hope some of you will use the links in this blog post to get your children or grandchildren involved in this most worthy effort. Happy Halloween!