Millions of people across the world celebrate Halloween in some shape or form. The holiday is particularly popular in America and conjures up images of ghosts, ghouls, trick, and treats.
During World War Two in Northern Ireland, American GIs were well known for their access to candies, chocolate, and sugar. Children across the world still associate Halloween with obtaining such treats but it was a different world during the war.
During the war, sugar was one of the food items rationed in participating countries. As a result, the tradition of trick or treating waned but made a comeback in the 1950s.
Some were lucky enough to still receive sweet treats. This included the US Army who found Tootsie Rolls added to their packs due to their durability.
A Halloween party in 1942
The excerpt below provides a wonderful example of how Halloween was celebrated in America during the war years.
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 them for the party. Playing games that originate from the character of the occasion, like pulling fortunes form the witches’ cauldron or spirit rapping, are times of 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 (p. 49)
Halloween in the trenches
Of course, millions of servicemen were not spending Halloween with their families through wartime. American GIs like Topeka’s Edward “Smitty” Smith were embroiled in bloody battle on 31st October 1944. He suffered two injuries on Halloween 1944 in Marieulles, France.
He had found himself arriving in France in October 1944. More than 2,000 American troops died on the shores of Normandy months earlier. Smith’s main role was driving trucks. He supplied ammunition, gasoline, and equipment across France to frontline troops.
Members of the 95th Division were to relieve troops on the front lines. Smith and two others went ahead of 1st Platoon, Company E, 378th Infantry. He noticed what he thought were cobwebs in the trees but were, in fact, booby traps.
At this point, you displayed great and courageous initiative by rushing forward and pointing out booby traps to enable members of your squad to proceed safely.
Reaching the edge of a clearing you dashed into the clearing and emptied your rifle point blank into the nearest enemy foxhole. You then ran behind a large tree, reloaded and repeated this action on a second enemy foxhole.
You returned and for the third time rushed an enemy position, throwing grenades in the foxholes. All this action was done under heavy enemy small arm and machine gun fire and returning from your third gallant raid you were seriously wounded in the left arm by enemy rifle fire.
You then jumped into a foxhole for cover, setting off a booby trap, which wounded you the second time (in the left leg). But even after this second wound, it was only at your squad leader’s order that you went to the rear.
Major General Harry Twaddle – Commanding General of 95th Division.
After his Halloween adventures, Smith received a Purple Heart, Combat Medal, Victory Medal, and European Campaign Medal.
A changed world
In the years before war broke out, Halloween was often a much darker festival. Vandalism and a celebration of the dark side were more common than the family-friendly festival of today.
Seventy or eighty years ago, newspapers were full of stories of mischief-making while parties and costumes were rarely mentioned.
As trouble escalated in the 1940s with youths unsupervised by older generations at war, many communities called for a Halloween ban.
1942 saw the beginning of Halloween as we know it today. Rather than ban the festival, many communities opted to create a safer celebratory space. Costumes, dances, and parties became more popular.
After 1941, American attitudes toward Halloween changed forever. With military heading overseas to face real horrors some Halloween traditions just didn’t sit well.
Beheading of the Ghosts was the name of what the gathered were watching. Armed guards led a victim into a dimly lit chamber and prepared him for the executioner who waited there. The axeman then raised his axe and as it descended, apparently on the victim’s neck, the lights were extinguished and a resounding whack was heard, followed by a scream.
The Fun Encyclopedia – 1940
Costumes and celebrations continue
Newark, New Jersey held a parade of forty floats in 1939. Police estimated over 300,000 people lined the streets. These traditions would be scaled back during the war. Some local events were saved but cities like Chicago canceled Halloween outright in 1942.
Other traditions would be abolished due to the prevailing mood.
Soaping windows isn’t fun this year. Your government needs soaps and grease for the war… Even ringing door bells has lost its appeal because it may be disturbing the sleep of a tired war worker who needs his rest.
James Spinning, superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York
Parties at home increased in popularity with some of today’s more familiar games such as ducking for apples. One popular game had blindfolded girls reach into a bowl to draw out a coloured cloth. Red might mean she would marry a soldier, blue, perhaps a sailor.
Costumes rose in popularity too. Clowns, cowboys, Indians, and hobos were common. The release of the Wizard of Oz in 1939 also led to the stereotypical witches costume appearing. Pointed hats, long noses, warts and evil cackles were how evil old hags would be portrayed from that day forward.
The birth of modern Halloween
Towards the end of the war, Hollywood embraced the paranormal more. The Uninvited in 1944, starring Ray Milland was the first blockbuster to focus on ghosts and started the genre we recognise today.
Parties grew in size, celebration parades returned to the streets. Importantly, sugar rationing ended and America once again embraced its love of candy treats. It was OK to treat horror as fun again and the tradition of Halloween would grow and grow through the decades.