The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Halloween has been observed in Elora since the 1850s as an evening of pranks and parties, and sometimes rowdyism and vandalism.
In 1864, editor J.M. Shaw noted that in recent years the festivities were “becoming more destructive.” Damage that year was estimated at $200, a sum equal to about 50 times that amount in the inflated currency of 1990 (over $17,000 in 2021).
The pranks of 1864 required considerable labour on the part of their perpetrators. All the farm gates between Elora and Ponsonby were removed, and fences were erected across the road at each farm. A well-organized crew placed carriages and wagons crosswise along the length of the Victoria Street bridge. Exterior staircases were removed from buildings, and a number of chimneys were filled with rotting cabbages. Through the course of the evening, roving bands of drunken rowdies alarmed those citizens who were too timid to leave their houses to join the party.
Strictly speaking, Halloween is the vigil before All Saints’ Day, observed by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches as All Hallows Even. By coincidence, the day is also the last day of the year on the old Druid calendar. It is the latter influence that has been the stronger one in recent history. The pranks, festivities and symbols of Halloween, such as the black cat and the witch, are remnants of the celebrations of Druidism.
The older significance of Halloween persisted in Ireland and Scotland after the Christian religion became established in the British isles. The Scottish and Irish settlers of Elora brought their customs with them.
The mischief perpetrated in Elora in the 1860s was identical to the pranks that folklorists have reported in the rural areas of Scotland and Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. By tradition these were attributed to the witches and goblins that were believed to be abroad on Halloween, and to those who had died during the year and were searching for a warm residence for the winter.
Some traditions from the home country were not observed widely here: bonfires on hills, for example. Others, like costume parties, continue to the present in various forms, even though most of the participants have little understanding of the meaning of the festivities.
Destroyed crops and maimed and killed livestock were outrages committed periodically at Halloween in Scotland and Ireland, and were associated with the witchcraft cults that were the last remnants of Druid traditions. These were not imported to Canada to any great extent, though isolated occurrences were reported around Elora and elsewhere through the 19th century.
Elora developed some of its own Halloween traditions. Most popular of these was the switching of store signs from one location to another: a barber pole would be relocated at a tailor’s shop, the surveyor’s sign would appear over the door of a grocery store, the newspaper name would guide the way to a local barroom. A century and more ago, local people found this sort of thing extremely hilarious. Most of the pranks were of a similar nature, and were dismissed as harmless mischief.
The most enduring Halloween traditions involved outdoor privies: these were moved, overturned, locked with someone inside, or even demolished.
Vengeful owners sometimes took elaborate measures to foil the pranksters. These rites go back to Scotland and Ireland, and they persisted in Elora until the last of these facilities ceased to be functional in the 1960s. Most Elora old-timers can recount several Halloween privy stories, and these would fill many columns if collected and printed.
The line between pranksterism and vandalism is not always clear, and has changed over time. Many of the stunts of the previous century would not be tolerated now, although at the time they were generally regarded with amusement.
Destructive vandalism has always run in cycles. Halloween often passes with barely a minor incident. Sociologists have attempted to tie these cycles to prosperity, poverty, boredom, unemployment, and other aspects of broader society, but the effort is unconvincing. It is more reasonable to explain binges of vandalism as a combination of youthful impulse with the inspiration of a small number of ringleaders.
Vandalism in more recent decades was costly and dangerous in some years. In the 1950s, several barns were burned in the Elora area. In the 1960s, gasoline was poured onto Geddes Street and set alight, and in one memorable year a hopper car full of coal was pushed off the end of the CPR track and across Chalmers street. Hoisting hay wagons atop barns was a perennial favourite prank of more muscular youths, and, with increasing prosperity, egg-tossing became fashionable.
The consistent feature of Halloween for at least a century has been trick-or-treating by children. Folklorists have traced this custom to Ireland, where Roman Catholic peasants once went door-to-door to collect food for the feast of All Saints Day, and played tricks on the stingier homeowners. It seems to have come to Canada by way of the United States in the 1890s, and was firmly established in Elora by the time of the First World War. Carved pumpkins and the soaping of windows also had Irish origins, and came to Canada by the same route.
Costumed children and jack-o-lanterns, along with splattered eggs and soaped windows, are the continuing Halloween customs. They are now sustained by a mass North American culture, rather than the traditions of individual ethnic and religious groups.
Regrettably, few door-to-door goblins will be able to gorge themselves on the homemade candy that was standard fare 70 and 80 years ago.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 30, 1990.