November 01, 2009

Happy Cabbage Night?


The streets near my house are full of smashed pumpkins, and discarded candy wrappers are blowing around with the leaves. Another Halloween come and gone. It's my favorite holiday, so I'm always a little glum when it's over. Why can't Halloween be longer?

Well, in the early twentieth century it was longer, often lasting several nights. Here's an account by Charles W. "Charlie" Turner that appeared in The Haverhill Gazette's October 27, 2005 issue. Charlie's looking back nostalgically to his childhood in the Acre, a dense urban neighborhood in Haverhill, Massachusetts.


"It all began on October 28, which was known as Cabbage Night. ... Many families raised cabbages in their gardens and young men went there to steal them. Afterwards, they raced through the streets throwing the plants at houses along the way. Ma warned me to stay away from the windows just in case..."

"The second night, Oct.30, was called Beggars-Night. This was the night when children put on their costumes and went from door to door in search of treats. ..."

"On Oct.31, Halloween came and most everybody stayed home. This was the night for mischief ... a return to those places that ignored a child's request for a treat. Most of the time it was cut clotheslines and soaped windows in our neighborhood. However, on the other side of Main Street, things could be worse. There were broken windows, messes on porches, and even an occasional tipped car."


Charlie doesn't indicate the years he's remembering, but my guess is the 1930s and early 1940s. My mother is a Haverhill native, and she has similar memories from her childhood in the '40s.

Halloween used to be a much more raucous holiday marked by occasional rioting and widespread vandalism. Although celebrations still sometimes get out of hand these days, its much more sedate. For this, we can thank civil authorities who tamed Halloween in the mid-1900s through a program of parades, school parties, and child-friendly trick-or-treating. Rather than ban the holiday, they channeled its energy into less destructive outlets. I guess I'll take one crime-free night of Halloween over three nights of urban chaos.

(The best source for a history of North American Halloween that I've read is Nicholas Rogers' Halloween. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.)

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