Halloween Traditions during the 20th Century

What were the traditions of Halloween in the Wissahickon Valley Region?

I did my best to research through the Ambler Gazette archives online, and was able to find some examples of what the people in the area did to celebrate Halloween.

But first... let's take a look at the history of Halloween how the traditions came about!

History of Halloween

It all started with the Celtic festival of Samhain that took place on November 1st to celebrate their new year. November 1st represented the end of summer, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter season that associated with human death. The Celts believed, at the time, that on the night of October 31st while celebrating the eve of Samhain, the ghosts returns to Earth.

By 43 CE, the Roman Empire conquered most of the Celtic territory. By the 9th century, Christianity had spread into the Celtic lands, taking over their old traditions and rituals. In 1000 CE, the church declared November 2nd "All Souls' Day," which was the day they honor the dead. It was believed that they want to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a more church-oriented holiday.

All Souls' Day was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, which was from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning "All Saints’ Day." The night before All Souls' Day, and the day before the Celtic festival of Samhain, was called All-Hallows Eve, which is later called "Halloween."

During Colonial America, the first celebration that occurred in America included "play parties," and they were public events that celebrates the harvest. Neighbors shared ghost stories, dance, sing, and even tell each other's fortunes.

By the middle of the 19th century, annual fall festivals became common, but Halloween was not officially celebrated yet in America.

Later on in the 19th century, there were get-togethers and Halloween parties for kids and adults. As it becomes more of a holiday, parents were encouraged to take away anything that is scary, frighting, or grotesque. And because of that, Halloween became less scary, frighting, or grotesque by the early 20th century.

Halloween in the Wissahickon Valley Region

Based on what I found through the Ambler Gazette archives, it looks like they were following the trends of Halloween tradition in the early 20th century: there were mostly parties at people's houses, in schools, and in town. The way they spelled "Halloween" was actually spelled "Hallowe'en." That was how I was able to find more evidence of how the people in Ambler, Whitpain, and Lower Gwynedd celebrated Halloween.

What's interesting is that they were not just parties. Most of them were masquerade parties, and the attendees were called "masqueraders."

The term, "masqueraders" means someone in disguise, or simply people wearing masks. In Scotland and Ireland, disguising was a Halloween custom. It is said that in Scotland 1895, "masqueraders" carried lanterns made out of scooped turnips. They go to people's homes, and get rewarded with cake, fruit, and money.

"The practice of guising at Halloween in North America is first recorded in 1911, where a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, Canada reported children going 'guising' around the neighborhood."

- Popular Timelines

It's unknown how schools got involved with Halloween, but I have a feeling it also took place during the late 1890s/early 20th century. Sunnyside School in Ambler, for example, took part of the Halloween tradition in the 1890s.

What's interesting was that the students of Sunnyside School took charge of the event. Their theme was Scottish, where the boys dressed in kilts while the girls wore pretty costumes with Scottish caps and sashes. Decorations included fishing rods, guns, pumpkin lanterns, products of the field, etc. There was even an open fireplace that was built with a glow that helped warmed the guests, and made them feel at home.

This was an invitation from the principal of the school:

My Loved, My Honored, Much-Respected.


Folk, who who have their lessons tried,

Folk whom glee has often hied,

Welcome to our Sunnyside

And to Hallowe'en

29th the day and 7 the hour;

See the shades of evening lower,

See approach the All Saints' power,

Mirth and jollity,

Who will have a merry time

With the bagpipes' droning chimes,

Hearken to our simple rhyme,

Forward to the call.

As a response, 50 people showed up. The Scottish song "Auld Lang Syne" was written on the wall, and was sung at the opening and closing event. Other songs included were "The Campbells are Coming" and "Going to Jerusalem."

Clipping from Ambler Gazette (first half): November 4, 1897 (page 7)
Clipping from Ambler Gazette (second half): November 4, 1897 (page 7)
Clipping from Ambler Gazette: November 5, 1914 (page 1)
Clipping from Ambler Gazette: November 5, 1914 (page 8)
Clipping from Ambler Gazette: October 22, 1942 (page 5)

In the 1940s, big bands were trending during the time. Ambler High School during the 1940s celebrated Halloween by having a little party with music by Harry James and his Orchestra. They don't even have to wear a costume! I don't think teenagers back then ever wore costumes for Halloween. They were mature, for sure.

What was your Halloween tradition? Was it scary? Was it fun? What was your take on Halloween now? Back then?


Halloween was very interesting back then, and there may be a difference between how Halloween was celebrated in Ambler, Whitpain, and Lower Gwynedd. So far in my research, I found out there were wealthy families living in Whitpain and Lower Gwynedd. So it would make sense that they would hold exclusive parties. For Ambler, everyone was invited to parties. There were parades and town parties, for sure, in Ambler.

What's interesting is that these parties were not "scary." As mentioned in history, parents were encouraged to make Halloween less scary. That would explain why Halloween, somehow, regained its reputation as being the holiday to scare people. People didn't want Halloween to be less-frightening.

In the later post, I'll be taking about the vandalism that began during the 20th century that took place on Halloween night. Stay tuned!!


"Halloween: Origins, Meaning & Traditions." HISTORY. Last modified September 21, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.

"History of Halloween in Timeline." Popular Timelines. Accessed September 30, 2020. https://populartimelines.com/timeline/Halloween.

"Wissahickon Valley Public Library's Ambler Gazette Collection." POWER Library: Pennsylvania's Electronic Library. Accessed September 30, 2020. http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/wivp-gazett.

#pahistory #halloween #traditions #sunnysideschool #sunnysideacademy #ambler #amblergazette #amblerhighschool

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