7 Burning Halloween Questions: Answered!

iStock
iStock

As you put the finishing touches on your costume and stock up on candy for the neighborhood kids, let's take a minute to reflect on the origin of some popular Halloween traditions.

1. WHO STARTED HALLOWEEN?

Halloween got its start thousands of years ago, and we can thank the Celts for getting things going. They celebrated a holiday known as Samhain on October 31, one of the four "quarter days" of the calendar, and possibly the Celtic New Year. They believed that the dead could walk the earth on Samhain and cause mischief but, on the plus side, their presence also made it easier for the Druid priests to predict the future.

2. WHY DO WE WEAR COSTUMES?

On Samhain, a big bonfire would be built and sacrifices made to the dead, while the common folk would dress up in animal skins and try to tell their own fortunes (probably with the same success rate as the "professionals"). The costumes, Halloween's most enduring tradition, were donned either to calm the spirits or to blend in with them, so as to not incur their wrath.

3. HOW DID SAMHAIN BECOME HALLOWEEN?

Starting in 43 CE, the Roman war machine rolled through Britain and conquered a large chunk of the Celtic population. But the Romans, always the master conquerors, cleverly blended two of their own holidays with the Celtic Samhain to make the transition to Roman rule more seamless. One holiday was a celebration of the dead (easy enough to mix with Samhain) and the other was a celebration of the Pomona, the goddess of fruit and tress, where, supposedly, the tradition of bobbing for apples takes root.

When Christianity arrived on the scene, the hodgepodge holiday again was forced to change. Like the previous blending, the Christians incorporated their own holidays into the Samhain tradition. November 1 became All-hallow's, a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs, and October 31 became All-hallow's Even ("Even" being short for "evening," and providing the "n" in "Halloween"). Through the magic of etymology, All-hallow's Even became Halloween.

4. HOW DID WE GET FROM BONFIRES AND DEAD SAINTS TO PLASTIC MASKS AND CANDY CORN?

Why, the Americans of course!

But it didn't happen right away. Puritans in New England suppressed the superstitious holiday. In the South, however, where religious piety was less important, Halloween was celebrated in much the same way it was in Europe. But a great tide of immigration in the late 1800s brought a new life to the holiday, and no amount of piety could contain it. Through the years, the "spookiness" of Halloween was replaced with a more wholesome community feel, out of which grew trick-or-treating and, as towns celebrated together, stripped any religious significance away. Finally, after many thousands of years and many cultural modifications, we arrived at a holiday involving witches, costumes, candy, mischief, the deceased and pumpkins.

5. WAIT, WHERE DO PUMPKINS FIT IT?

Making vegetable lanterns can be traced back to Great Britain and Ireland, where carving turnips, beets and potatoes had been a fall tradition for many centuries. According to an Irish myth, a man named Stingy Jack once had a drink with the Devil and, when he didn't want to pay for it, he convinced the Devil to turn into a coin. However, Stingy Jack lived up to his name and pocketed the coin next to a cross, keeping the Devil locked in a monetary state until he struck a deal with Jack to leave him alone and not claim his soul for Hell upon his death. When Jack did die, Heaven rejected him and, true to his word, so did the Devil.

As punishment for his trickery, the Devil sent Jack out to wander the earth forever with a single coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way. To Irish children he was Jack of the Lantern or, as the Irish are wont to do when confronted with an "of the," Jack O'Lantern.

But Jack-o'-Lanterns were not a part of Halloween celebrations in Britain; it would take a new continent to cement that tradition. The first mention of a Jack-o'-Lantern being part of a Halloween celebration comes from a Canadian paper which, in 1866, wrote, "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle."

6. WHY DID PUMPKINS BEAT OUT TURNIPS, BEETS AND POTATOES?

Simple. Pumpkins abounded in America and were much better for carving and illuminating than any of the aforementioned veggies. We can assume the tradition of smashing pumpkins originated very soon after the carved pumpkin entered the Halloween celebration in the late 1800s.

7. WHERE DOES CANDY CORN COME FROM?

Like Christmas and the candy cane and Easter with its marshmallow Peeps, Halloween, too, has a signature sweet: the mysterious candy corn. Like some annual plague, the small cone-shaped candies infect our stores and molars each year before vanishing as quickly as they came. Comedian Lewis Black has a theory about candy corn: "All the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1914. They never had to make it again. We never eat enough of it. We only eat two or three or four pieces apiece. So, literally, after Halloween the candy corn companies send out their minions. And they go from garbage can to garbage can and collect the corn and throw it back in the bags. And it appears next year." Good theory, but not quite right.

Nobody knows who invented candy corn, but we do know it began to appear in the 1880s, and we know the first company to make it commercially was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia. Soon after, the Goelitz Confectionery Company began production of candy corn in Cincinnati in 1898. The process at first was daunting: a candy blend was mixed up, heated and then poured by hand into molds. Each mold needed three separate pours to achieve the tri-color glory that is candy corn. Today the process is mechanized and the tri-color composition isn't nearly as impressive as it was to the people of the 19th century, but Goelitz has never changed the recipe and they continue to make the candy to this day. The Goelitz Confectionery Company even went on to invent another fairly popular candy a few decades later, although they had to change the company name to do so. Today they are known as Jelly Belly.

All images via iStock.

The Hottest Star Wars Toy for Christmas in 1977 Was an Empty Box

iStock/Sadeugra
iStock/Sadeugra

It's hard to imagine a child's face lighting up at the sight of an empty cardboard box staring back at them from under the Christmas tree. But in 1977, young Jedis-in-training were so hungry for anything Star Wars-related that even an I.O.U. was something to get excited about.

When George Lucas's intergalactic gamble first hit screens in May 1977, no one knew quite what to expect—especially the film's toy-making partner, Kenner. Instead of flooding the market with action figures and dolls for a movie that could very well end up being a flop, the company decided not to manufacture any toys right away. Unfortunately, there wasn't just a demand for Star Wars toys that year; there was an outright fever that took the company completely by surprise. And with Christmas just a few short months away, the ill-prepared Kenner needed to act—fast.

Realizing it would be impossible to get a full line of Star Wars toys manufactured in time to meet the needs of the holiday season, a Kenner executive named Bernard Loomis knew he had to improvise. Instead of simply releasing a proper toyline in 1978 and missing out on the Christmas rush, Loomis came up with what is now known as the "Early Bird Certificate Package" (or more colloquially as the "Empty Box Campaign") to satisfy this sudden, rabid fan base.

Basically, parents would go to their local toy store and pay $7.99 for a thin cardboard package, about the size of a manila envelope, with painted renderings of the proposed 12-figure Star Wars toyline that Kenner was promising to release in the months ahead. The cardboard kit could be turned into a display diorama for all the figures, which—at that point—only existed in theory. And since the word "diorama" isn't quite enough to satisfy a kid on Christmas morning, the kit also contained the all-important mail-in certificate promising the recipient would get the company's first four figures—Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca—delivered right to their homes between February and June 1978.

Kenner limited the supply of this glorified pre-order campaign to 500,000 kits, none of which were to be sold after December 31, 1977 in order to really manipulate the holiday market.

In an attempt to soften the blow of what was essentially nothing but a bunch of cardboard under the tree, Kenner sweetened the pot by including some stickers and a Star Wars Fan Club membership card. After months of waiting, kids everywhere would come home from school and be greeted by their delayed Christmas gift: four figures, along with foot pegs to fit them into their display stand. Eventually the entire first line of Star Wars toys came out in 1978 and could be purchased in stores, whether you mailed in a certificate or not.

From 1978 to 1985, Kenner never again doubted the power of the Star Wars toy line. In that time, the company released a robust roster of more than 100 different action figures based on the film series, scraping the bottom of the barrel of Lucas lore along the way with obscurities like Dengar and General Madine. The company went from having no toys on the shelf in 1977 to having every side character, prop, and vehicle recreated in plastic in just a few years.

Nowadays, intact Early Bird Kits go for big money on the collector's market, especially if they still include the original certificate kids were supposed to mail back (prices in the $4000 to $8000 range are pretty standard). But the biggest winner of this whole stunt, as usual, was George Lucas.

When signing on to direct Star Wars at 20th Century Fox, Lucas agreed to work for just $150,000, as opposed to the $500,000 he was set to earn. In exchange for the pay cut, the director asked for two things: The rights to any sequels to the movie and the rights to all the merchandise, including the toys. Believing Star Wars to be just another science fiction movie, Fox happily agreed to the reduced salary. That empty box under countless Christmas trees was the start of what would become Lucas's $20 billion merchandising empire.

This article originally ran in 2016.

QVC's Strangest Gift Item: The Poopin' Moose

lemonmmermaid via YouTube
lemonmmermaid via YouTube

The official name of woodworker Darryl Fenton’s novelty item was the Wooden Moose Candy Dispenser. Handcrafted in his Wasilla, Alaska workshop, the unfinished, sanded animal carving had a rectangular opening in the back that could be stuffed with candy pieces. When the moose’s head was lifted, it dispensed the candy in a way that resembled a bowel movement. 

QVC sold 30,000 of them in 10 minutes.

Colloquially known as the Poopin' Moose, the wooden gift was discovered during the shopping network’s 50 state tour in 1997. Arriving in Alaska, buyers were presented with the moose by Glenn Munro of Unique Concepts, which had licensed the moose from Denton. The carving had been sold at regional fairs; QVC, knowing a demonstrable item when they saw one, agreed to put it on the air, leaving the sales pitch to its team of accomplished hosts.

"What better way to dispense your candy than through the butt of a moose?" wondered host Pat Bastia. Others stuffed brown M&Ms into the moose; host Steve Bryant pondered whether or not putting a Hershey chocolate bar in the item would result in diarrhea. When the moose became clogged with peanut candies, Bryant declared it "constipated" and inserted a finger to remove the blockage.

Denton, who had patented the device in 1995, couldn’t handcraft enough to meet demand. He outsourced production to several other plants; via Unique and other outlets, he sold over 100,000 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the moose’s profile grew, Denton added animals that could defecate treats on demand: buffalo, mules, bunnies, and alpacas. He produced a premium Millennium Pooper—a walnut-carved moose with ivory eyes—and sold it for $150. A Pocket Pooper that miniaturized the moose was available for a brief time.

Unfortunately, Denton’s commitment to his craft would prove to be his undoing. In 2004, a rival poop gift named Mr. Moose was released. Offering a similar experience to the Poopin’ Moose, it was made in China and retailed for just $25, a fraction of the $100 handmade version. Suffering from neck problems and a financial crunch, Denton decided to discontinue further production. It never again appeared on QVC’s airwaves, a fact that disappointed onetime host Bryant, who spoke to author David Hofstede in 2004.

"It was handcrafted, provided jobs for people in Alaska, and it pooped M&Ms," he said. "How cool is that?"

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