Halloween: Death Makes a Holiday


Americans have a strange relationship with death. We love our death wrapped up and packaged for us in the guise of “entertainment.” We dedicate hours of our lives to killing others and subsequently dying ourselves in video games. Our film and television choices feature death as a constant  theme in popular shows like “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter” and “Game of Thrones.” Possibly, our most celebrated universal cultural observance, Halloween, is rapidly becoming a rival to Christmas. In 2011 Americans spent an incredible $7 billion on Halloween related merchandise – a holiday that delights in death. We create cemeteries on our lawns, hang skeletons around the house, and snack on cookies made to look like severed fingers.

However, to speak of death and dying outside of these safe boundaries American’s have created, typically elicits a negative reaction. We surround ourselves with death and yet are painfully uncomfortable truly talking about it. Perhaps this is precisely why Americans love Halloween so much, as it allows for an acceptable place and time to explore and sate some of our curiosity and often fear, around the subject of death.

I had originally intended for this to be a piece about the history of Halloween and traditional halloween foods. However, when I came across Tori Avery’s piece on it for The History Kitchen, I abandoned the idea, knowing Avery’s piece couldn’t really be improved upon. So, I encourage you to read it.

Instead, I’m going to take a look at how the holiday and the foods associated with it have changed over the decades through sharing examples of menus and descriptions in various journals, cookbooks and magazines.

Sugar and sweet things have always been a part of death rituals and dying. Used not only as a reminder to those left behind that life is sweet, but as a parting gift to the deceased, to remember their time on this earth as being sweet. It is no wonder then, that candy and desserts play such a big role in our modern observances.

A 1901 Halloween Party: While the dictionary definition of Halloween is rather different than the modern small boy’s interpretation of it would indicate, yet we say with all earnestness, give the boys a good time occasionally, and why not on Halloween?…Boys will be far less apt to carry off the clothes-posts, unhinge the gates, and make night hideous, if you give them a part in keeping with the occasion–a party where tin horns from the first course at the dinner-table–where colored paper, napkins, folded to represent the “jack-be-nimble” and “jack-be-quicks,” “toads,” “monkeys,” and “parrots”; where paper caps adorn the head and where jack-lanterns adorn the room…

Refreshments: Bouillon, de Jolly Boys, Celery, Kindergarten Crackers, Turtle Sandwiches, Little Pigs in Blankets, Orange Jelly, Olives a la Natural History, Sugar Off, with maple syrup, Nut Cartoons, lemonade.
The Blue Ribbon Cook Book, Annie R. Gregory [Monarch Book Company:Chicago IL] 1901


Halloween 1905 – Food fads, games and parties:

The Halloween Box Cake: The newest fashion in Hallowe’en supper-table decoration is a cake made of white pasteboard boxes, in shape like pieces of pie, which fit together and give the appearance of a large cake. Each one of the boxes is covered with a white paper which resembles frosting. At the close of the feast the pieces are distributed, each box containing some little souvenier sutiable to Hallowe’en. One box, of course, contains a ring, another a thimble, a third a piece of silver, a fourth a mitten, a fifth a fool’s cap, and so on. Much fun is created as the boxes are opened, and the person who secures the ring is heartily congratulated. The unlucky individual who gets the fool’s cap must wear it for the evening.

The Party: All formality must be dispensed with on Hallowe’en. Not only will quaint customs and mythic tricks be in order, but the decorations and refreshments, and even the place of meeting, must be as strange and mystifying as possible. For the country or suburban home a roomy barn is decidedly the best accomodation that can be provided. If this is not practicable, a large attic, running the entire length of the house, is the next choice; but if this also is denied the ambitious hostess, let the kitchen be the place of meeting and of mystery, with the dining-room, cleared of its usual furniture and decorated suitably for the occasion, reserved for the refreshments. The light should be supplied only by Jack-o’-lanterns hung here and there about the kitchen, with candles in the dining-room.The decorations need not be expensive to be charming, no matter how large the room. Large vases of ferns and chrysanthemums and umbrella stands of fluffy grasses will be desirable; but if these cannot be readily obtained, quantities of gayly tinted autumn leaves will be quite as appropriate. Festoons of nuts, bunches of wheat or oats, and strings of cranberries may also help to brighten the wall decorations, and the nuts and cranberries will be useful in many odd arrangements for ornamenting the refreshment table. Have the table long enough (even if it must be extended with boards the whole length of the barn or attic) to accommodated all the guests at once. Arrange huge platters of gingerbread at each corner, with dishes of plain candies and nuts here and there, and pyramids of fruit that will be quickly demolished when the guests are grouped about the table. No formal waiting will be desirable.

Food and decor: Browning nuts, popping corn, roasting apples, and toasting marshmallows will add a great deal to the pleasure of the evening. The dining table should be draped in pale green crepe paper, the lights above being shrouded in gorgeous orange. Pumpkins of various sizes should be scooped and scraped to a hollow shell and, lined with wax paper and filled with good things to eat, should be placed in the centre of the table. Lighted candles and quaint oriental lanterns will add greatly to the decorations.

–Bright Ideas for Entertaining, Mrs. Herbert Linscott [George W. Jacobs:Philadelphia]

1911 Halloween menus:
Menu No. I: Ganser Salad, Brown Bread Sandwiches, Raised Loaf Cake, Pricilla Popped Corn, Hot Coffee.
Menu No. II: Rob’s Rarebit, Zephyrettes, Sultana Fudge, German Punch
Menu No. III: Hamlin Ham Timbales, Ribbon Sandwiches, Nut Ginger Cookies, Peneuche, Cider

Catering for Special Occasions with Menus & Recipes, Fannie Merritt Farmer [David McKay:Philadelphia] 1911


Halloween party 1914: 

Each year there are so many new decorations for Halloween and so many good old ones revived that the only shame is that Halloween doesn’t last for a week. And surely never before were there such attractive Halloween decorations as there are this year…For a centrepiece on the table on which the refreshments are placed at a children’s Halloween party are set forth, nothing is more interesting than a huge paper pumpkin, with green leaves and a greed stem. After the pumpkin and leaves are made, they can be varnished to make them stiff. A little doll, dressed in yellow crepe paper, is seated on the top of the pumpkin and it is drawn by half a dozen little gray mice, that can be bought at any toy or favor store. Each piece has a piece of yellow ribbon tied about its neck, with the other end in the hand of the doll Cinderella…Another Halloween idea that is good is a big Japanese paper parasol covered with yellow crepe paper, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth cut out of black paper, and touched up with white paint. These are fastened on the outside of the parasol, the nose over the tip, and the effect is delightful. Small gummed seals that can be used for decorative purposes come cut out and sold in packages. There are owls and witches, pumpkins, imps, and cats. An effective but easily made place card is a small white card with a seal pasted in one corner or at one end

New York Times, October 25, 1914

1932 Halloween Parties and Menus:

The colors of Harvest time make Hallowe’en party decorations the gayest of all the year. Color and the mystery of benevolent witchcraft are a great help to the gayety of such a party and should set the pace. Once of the most successful decorations for a Hallowe’en party I ever used was a large copper tray loaded with fruit. The tray was oval. In the center was a small pumpkin surrounded with apples, oranges, pears and clusters of green and purple grapes. The grapes trailed gracefully over the sides. A decoration of this sort arranged on a table or sideboard and flanked by 8 or 10 candles of orange color suggests the opulence of harvest. Candle light is so appropriate for Hallowe’en it is a good idea to have the rooms lighted entirely this way with orange candles in sticks everywhere. Another attractive lighting arrangement is orange colored paper lanterns. Paint Jack O’Lantern faces on the lanterns with black India Ink. A large pumpkin with eyes, nose and mouth cut out and burning candle should occupy a prominent place in the room. Of course, witches, black cats and skeletons should b purchased and hung about the room. A successful table decoration is made from oranges. Cut the tops from the oranges, scoop out the pulp with a teaspoon. Cut Jack O’Lantern faces in them. Place a tiny candle holder and candle in the lanterns. The holders and tapers used form birthday cakes are excellent. Marigolds or orange and yellow button chrysanthemums are the flowers to use for the supper table. Sprays of orange Japanese Lantern flowers are beautiful and just the color for a Hallowe’en party. Now for the menus. There is as much orange in the mens as possible, so that the Hallowe’en color scheme may be carried out.

Menu No. 1 Glorified Club Sandwiches, Spiced Pears, Olives. Mince or Pumpkin Pie, Coffee, Sugared Nuts, Hallowee’en Candies
Menu No. 2 Shrimp Wiggle, Celery Curls, Mixed Sweet Pickles, Orange Cream in Orange Baskets, Assorted Frosted Cakes, Coffee, Nuts and Cluster Raisins, Hallowee’en Candies
Menu No. 3 Chicken or Oyster Patties, Sweet Pickled Gherkins, Cranberry Jelly, Ice Cream, Hallowe’en Orange Cake, Salted Almonds, Candied Ginger, Candies, Coffee
Menu No. 4 Chicken Bouillon with Whipped Cream, Cheese Crackers, Crab Salad, Hot Buttered Rolls, Dill Pickles, Orange Sherbet, Assorted Frosted Cakes, Candy, Coffee, Nuts


A Halloween Ghost Party:

Everyone loves a ghost party, whether he is fourteen or ninety. The invitations may be decorated with skull and crossbones and instruct the guests to come in ghostly garb. Have the room darkened, and as they enter the guests should be greeted with a ghostly handclasp; a wet glove filled with sand gives the desired effect. On the hearth bubbles a witch’s cauldron (made from a cooking pot), stirred by a crone who sings the incantation from Macbeth as she tosses in toy snakes, frogs, and so forth. She also draws out fortunes for the curious. The bugget supper table for a ghost party may be covered with a black paper cloth on which white ghosts are pasted. The center peice might be a witch’s cauldron (a black pot with a grinning face chalked on one side), filled with tiny dangling ghosts made from pipe cleaners, which act as favors. White tapers stuck in black bottles furnish the only light.

1937 Halloween Suppers: 

Hallowee’en Salad
Cream Cheese Sandwiches
Nuts, Apples, Taffy
Orange-filled Cup Cakes, Sweet Cider

Goblin-faced Meat Pies (faced slashed in crust)
Julienne Carrots
Orange Ice in Orange Cups
Chocolate Cookies, Ginger Ale

1942 Wartime Entertaining:

Write your Hallowe’en invitations on cutouts of black cats, cauldrons, scarecrows, pumpkins or witches. Use black or orange paper and write the invitation in the form of a jingle or just a note. Room decorations are a simple matter for they can be as casual as you like. Spread a few sheaves of corn around the room or stand up some stalks of corn amid a profusion of gay autumn leaves. Orange or black candles or orange bulbs–just a few to create an eerie effect–can be used to provide the light. Large cutouts of black cats, witches, or pumpkins pinned to the walls around the room, brilliant orange, yellow, or red tablecloths of cotton or old sheets dyed in any of those colors enhance the them of the party. Playing games that originate from the character of the occasion, like pulling fortunes form the witches’ cauldron or spirit rapping, are times for interest for this type of party. And don’t forget that traditional cider and doughnuts, orange and black candies, ice cream molds with a pumpkin, or made-with-honey pumpkin pie contribute much in a decorative way.

Wartime Entertaining, Ethel X. Pator [Consolidated Book Publishers:Chicago] 1942

1949 Halloween Party:

Witches and hobgoblins have come to town, ready to appear at the children’s Halloween parties. Never since before the war have the stores been so well stocked with paper masks, favors and other festive decorations in orange and black. bakeries offer ginger-cookie owls and frosted cakes atop which the old lady rides her broom. She’s also to be found molded in milk chocolate at some candy stores and, most wondrous of all, modeled in ice cream. Halloween means pumpkins with eyes, ears and noses cut out and a candle burning in the hollowed center…In the eyes of children, “homemade” surprises are just as enchanting as those bought at the store. They’ll be delighted to find a marshmallow face floating in their cup of hot chocolate. Two dots of melted chocolate or frosting squeezed through a pastry tube make the eyes, one dot the nose and a line the mouth. Or, again, with a pastry tube, sketch a whiskered cat’s face on an orange-frosted cake. Make popcorn balls, top them with crepe paper hats and give them frosting faces.

“News of Food: Parties,” New York Times, October 26, 1949


1952 Halloween in Los Angeles:

Parties on Halloween are an old, old custom and one we especially like to observe. Children and grown-ups alike love the party-giving spirit of this old fateful night so let’s plan a Halloween party today. Refreshments that emphasize the eerie atmosphere of the old traditions will delight the merrymakers. Witches Candle Cakes, flavored with mint chocolate wafers, are sure to triumph whether you serve them with ice cream, fruit or hot cocoa…Popcorn too should be in appearance at a Halloween party, as should apples.

“Apples, Popcorn Still Liked by Halloween Party-Goers,” Marian Manners, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1952

1956 Betty Crocker’s Halloween Refreshments:

(1) Cider and Doughnuts
(2) Pigs in Blankets, Carrot Straws, Ripe Olives, Orange Sherbet, Chocolate Cupcakes with Orange Butter Icing (Jack O’Lantern faces traced on icing with melted chocolate).

1957 Halloween Party – How to be Popular on Halloween Night:

Halloween night is an all-important knight for the small fry. Whether you’re planning a large-scale party or merely treating the visiting spooks, a table of clever edibles, with decorations to fit the occasion, will make you a popular hostess. The eerie atmosphere can be created simply and inexpensively with impish orange candles. Take bright-colored oranges and draw faces, using crayon, soft pencil or black enamel…Another great for the pigtail crowd are Halloween Candy Apples….Of course, Halloween parties are not limited to the youngsters. it’s the perfect time to start the fall entertaining season.


1963 Halloween Party:
No other time of year provides a better opportunity fo rthe colorful decorations children love so well…Use Halloween paper plates and napkins. Fill small paper cups with assorted Halloween candy; set at each place. Let your child help make the invitations–orange jack-o-lanterns or round black cats, cut out of construction paper. Make costumes mandatory. Have a prizes for the best. Menu: Sloppy Joes, Halloween Cake (Chocolate Cake with Fudge Frosting, Decorated with Candy Corn, Ice Cream, Hot Cocoa.

McCall’s Cook Book [Random House:New York] 1963

1964 Halloween Party: 

Bob for apples, carve a pumpkin, play spooky games…Menu: Witches’ Cauldron Soup, Goblin Franks, Vegetable Relishes, Ice Cream Jack-O’-Lanterns, Milk Halloween Cookies.


In more recent years, Halloween has become more of an adult centered celebration. Haunted Houses, horror theme park experiences, scary movies, pub crawls and street parties are now part of the American halloween landscape. In food, Martha Stewart has had a great influence on the holiday over the past decade. With a nod toward the more adult revelries and a revival of handwork and crafts, halloween parties are now full of clever and artistic foods that celebrate the spooky and macabre themes of Halloween. Let’s not forget the pumpkin flavored everything fad, which will be likely define this decade in American food history, along with bacon and salt.



Thanks to Food Timeline

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