Spring Fashions and Parades on Easter Sunday

This post was previously published on March 20th, 2016.

Do you remember dressing up in your Easter best as a child? The tradition of buying new clothes for the occasion is one that has continued for decades in America, and perhaps centuries in Europe. In fact, Easter spending on outfits is the second largest holiday expense, according to the a survey by the National Retail Federation in 2014, second only to the money spent on groceries or meals out.

In fact, America was also once known for the Easter parade. Bruce David Forbes describes the popularity of the parades and the holiday fashion trend in America’s Favorite Holidays:

“…parishioners from prominent New York City churches strolled Fifth Avenue following Easter morning worship services to show off their elegant fashions, especially ladies’ hats, their “Easter bonnets”… “At its height in the late 1940s, the New York City Easter parade drew crowds estimated at over a million people, inspiring other parades in cities like Atlantic City, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. By the 1890s, the expectation of new clothes for Easter was being encouraged by explicit marketing appeals from merchants via newspaper and magazine advertisements, store windows, and other promotions.”

“The expectations continued until recent decades, and many adults today, nationwide, remember the special Easter clothes of childhood.”

However, in recent years, this trend seems to have diminished somewhat, even if the Easter parades continue in a slightly different fashion (no pun intended). Forbes continues: “The parades still occur annually, although they are substantially diminished and are now more of a carnival featuring outlandish hats, instead of the fashion show of earlier years.”

So why have we stopped dressing up for Easter? “As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times has written, echoing the impression of almost everyone, “The whole association between Easter and clothes isn’t what it used to be.” He suggests that the new spring fashions remain but are not as focused on Easter. Even more important, I would suggest, is that in today’s American culture clothing is increasingly casual at work and at worship, influencing even Easter Sunday. If new Easter clothes drove sales in previous generations, that spending is greatly diminished now. When is the last time you saw an Easter bonnet?”

Learn more about American traditions and celebrations in America’s Favorite Holidays, available now.

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Vintage Valentines

This post was originally published on February 11th, 2016.

It’s Valentine’s Day! As the rush for candy, roses, stuffed animals, and jewelry hits its peak, let’s not forget the old standard: Valentine’s cards.

Though the deepest roots of the holiday are still quite difficult to confirm, we do know that the modern Valentine’s celebration has roots in England, most obviously with the poetry of Chaucer in the late Middle Ages. America caught on in the 1840s, “mainly with a torrent of cards”: once printers could readily produce ready-made greetings, giving of Valentine’s cards stateside took off dramatically.

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Bruce Forbes describes the old practice in America’s Favorite Holidays: “The individually written notes were indeed exchanges, so that if a man sent a poem to a woman expressing his interest and asking her to be his valentine, she would be expected to reply, either positively or negatively. This did not happen in just one day, so the valentine period informally extended over a week or so as one side composed and sent a note and then waited for a reply.”

The poems on the cards could also be drawn from “Valentine Writers”, or little booklets containing ready-made poems for those who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) compose their own verses. Here is an sample, including two possible replies:

FROM A COTTAGER TO HIS FAVORITE LASS
I for my Valentine have got
A little comfortable cot;
I’ve got a little piece of land,
And other things too at command:
Oh, tell me then if you’ll be mine,
Say if you’ll be my Valentine.

ANSWER OF COMPLIANCE
To my thanks you have a claim,
For the kindness which you proffer:
I should be indeed to blame,
Were I to reject your offer.

ANSWER OF REJECTION
’Tis not land that can impart,
A good temper, a good heart,
In the cottage we may find,
Anger and a troubled mind.

Furthermore, the practice of anonymous Valentines was much more widespread in the early days of the American Valentine’s Day—which made humorous, suggestive, or downright insulting messages much easier to send without repercussion. In 1858, Harper’s Weekly estimated an even split between sentimental and satiric valentines in the United States, with about one and a half million cards in each category.

Read more about the roots of America’s cultural standbys in America’s Favorite Holidays.


Did You Know? 7 Facts about Halloween

This post was originally published on October 30th, 2015.

The way that Americans celebrate Halloween is so culturally established that it’s often difficult to imagine it without its many defining themes and icons. But the way these long-standing traditions were established can be a mystery. How did this holiday come to be the way that it is today, and how is it still changing?

Before you don your costume, here are some facts about Halloween’s past you might not have known from Bruce David Forbes’ America’s Favorite Holidays.

1. The Halloween that we know today has roots in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain.

“Celts believed that this was the one time of the year when the veil between earthly reality and the spirit world was especially thin. . . With their attention focused on the spirits of the dead and on ghosts and fairies, the Celts countered dread and uncertainty with bonfires to push back the darkness, and perhaps with ritual dancing and masks or costumes, either to hide from the spirit creatures or to scare them away. This belief in a temporary opening between this world and the otherworld helps set the tone for what eventually becomes known as Halloween.”

Halloween_Sweden

2. Halloween’s name comes from the Christian observance of All Saints’ Day.

Some speculate that this holiday, moved from early May to the first of November to supplant the secular Samhain. “Whatever the motivation, November 1 became All Saints’ Day, eventually in Ireland too, and a century later All Souls’ Day was added on November 2 and became widely adopted in the western church by the 1300s. All Souls’ Day was mostly a time of prayer on behalf of the dead who were in purgatory, temporarily between heaven and hell. . . There was the evening before All Saints’ Day, called All Hallows’ Evening or Eve, and then the day itself, All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallows or Hallowmas.”

"Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

3. The Black Death contributed to Halloween’s darkly humorous focus on skeletons and death.

The plague, which terrorized Europe in the late Middle Ages, “gave rise to a morbid sense of humor and a gruesome fascination with skeletons and paintings of the Dance of Death or the Dance Macabre, which became absorbed into Halloween imagery. As summarized by Halloween historian Lisa Morton, ‘The new common obsession with depictions of skeletal Grim Reapers found a natural home in a festival once thought to be the night when the dead crossed over into the world of the living.'”

Wickiana54. The witch trials in the late Middle Ages influenced many key themes of both Halloween and Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

Scotland, a Celtic nation, had thousands of witch trials during the period between the late 1500s and early 1700s. “The first major examples were the North Berwick witch trials, begun in 1590, which garnered a lot of attention because King James VI of Scotland presided over them himself. . . . In a union of crowns, this James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, and only a few years later Shakespeare wrote his renowned play Macbeth, which includes Scottish kings, murderous plots, and witches. The trials of North Berwick incited ongoing fear of witches, prompting over two thousand additional trials in Scotland in the following years. Witches, the Devil, brooms, and black cats had become a part of Scottish culture.”

"Traditional Irish halloween Jack-o'-lantern" by Rannpháirtí anaithnid at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Traditional Irish halloween Jack-o’-lantern” by Rannpháirtí anaithnid at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

5. The iconic Halloween pumpkin could have been a Halloween turnip.

“In Ireland, small lanterns were created by
hollowing out a turnip or a beet and placing a candle inside, to light the way as people ventured through the night. The flickering light from the lanterns looked similar to the flashes of light that arose from peat bogs or marshes, flashes that appeared mysteriously and vanished quickly and were believed to be ghosts or fairies. . . . When the Irish came to the New World they found a new kind of squash, the pumpkin, native to North America and much larger than the turnip of old. The Irish quickly adopted the pumpkin as a replacement, again carving it and placing a light inside, creating what has become the bright orange symbol for the modern Halloween.”

6. Trick or treating really did involve actual tricks in early America.

Trick or treating, again carried over from Scottish tradition, comes from the practice of ‘guising’, or appearing in disguise. “As it developed in Scotland in particular, young adults in costume went door to door on the evening of October 31 to entertain by singing songs, telling stories, or performing sleight-of-hand tricks in return for something sweet. . . . The crowds solicited food and money, but in many cases they were more interested in pranks, and the phrase “trick or treat” arose in that context. The first known published use of the phrase appeared in Canada in 1927, and the first Halloween appearance in the United States was in a 1934 Oregon newspaper. . . So-called tricks, seen as good fun by the perpetrators, were indeed carried out, but many recipients viewed this activity as threatening. Unhinging front gates and discarding them blocks away, overturning outhouses, or splashing paint on buildings were no laughing matter for many citizens.”

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7. Halloween is one of the fastest-growing holidays for consumers.

Although several other holidays rank above Halloween in purchases every year, including Valentine’s Day and even the Super Bowl, Halloween spending is still at an all-time high. “In 2014, the National Retail Federation’s annual consumer spending survey indicated that Americans would spend $7.4 billion for Halloween. Of this, $2.8 billion, or 38 percent, was for costumes. (The other two major Halloween expenditures are candy at $2.2 billion and decorations at $2 billion.) Subdivided, $1.1 billion was for children’s costumes, but even more—$1.4 billion—was for adults. There was even $350 million budgeted for pet costumes!”

Learn more about the curious and oft-surprising histories of American’s culturally important holidays in America’s Favorite Holidays.


Spring Fashions and Parades on Easter Sunday

Do you remember dressing up in your Easter best as a child? The tradition of buying new clothes for the occasion is one that has continued for decades in America, and perhaps centuries in Europe. In fact, Easter spending on outfits is the second largest holiday expense, according to the a survey by the National Retail Federation in 2014, second only to the money spent on groceries or meals out.

In fact, America was also once known for the Easter parade. Bruce David Forbes describes the popularity of the parades and the holiday fashion trend in America’s Favorite Holidays:

“…parishioners from prominent New York City churches strolled Fifth Avenue following Easter morning worship services to show off their elegant fashions, especially ladies’ hats, their “Easter bonnets”… “At its height in the late 1940s, the New York City Easter parade drew crowds estimated at over a million people, inspiring other parades in cities like Atlantic City, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. By the 1890s, the expectation of new clothes for Easter was being encouraged by explicit marketing appeals from merchants via newspaper and magazine advertisements, store windows, and other promotions.”

“The expectations continued until recent decades, and many adults today, nationwide, remember the special Easter clothes of childhood.”

However, in recent years, this trend seems to have diminished somewhat, even if the Easter parades continue in a slightly different fashion (no pun intended). Forbes continues: “The parades still occur annually, although they are substantially diminished and are now more of a carnival featuring outlandish hats, instead of the fashion show of earlier years.”

So why have we stopped dressing up for Easter? “As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times has written, echoing the impression of almost everyone, “The whole association between Easter and clothes isn’t what it used to be.” He suggests that the new spring fashions remain but are not as focused on Easter. Even more important, I would suggest, is that in today’s American culture clothing is increasingly casual at work and at worship, influencing even Easter Sunday. If new Easter clothes drove sales in previous generations, that spending is greatly diminished now. When is the last time you saw an Easter bonnet?”

Learn more about American traditions and celebrations in America’s Favorite Holidays, available now.

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Charles Dickens’ Carol for Christmases Past, Present, and Future

‘Tis the night before Christmas! All through the Press, we’re celebrating a timeless English author, Charles Dickens, and his famous novella, A Christmas Carol.

Though we are lovers of literature, the book’s legacy stretches far further than the pages of the original text. Names and phrases from the work have entered the English lexicon. Many are familiar with the idea of a miserly “Scrooge” or the dismissive cry of “Bah, humbug!” from the less-festive, for example. Additionally, A Christmas Carol has spawned dozens of adaptations since its publication, spanning nearly every medium and genre—theatrical films, Broadway musicals sit alongside works like The Muppet Christmas Carol. 

In fact, Charles Dickens himself was the first to present the book in a different format. A hit among both British and American readers, he went on book tours in both areas, as Bruce David Forbes recounts in America’s Favorite Holidays.

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“When [Dickens] wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the first 6,000 copies of the book sold quickly. He gave dramatic public readings of his story to overflowing crowds and sales of the book soared. . . drawing crowds the way rock stars do today. In Boston, 10,000 tickets were sold weeks before his appearance, and in New York, 150 people stood in the cold all night long to get tickets.”

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.
Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.

A Christmas Carol‘s critical acclaim also played a key role in reviving many of England’s Christmas traditions and ensuring the prominence of the holiday in American culture. Dickens, of course, made certain that his book promoted what he envisioned as the Christmas ideal—which included both the kind and giving “Christmas spirit” and a wider acceptance of winter vacations:

A portrait of Dickens in 1842 (Francis Alexander).
Charles Dickens in 1842.

“Today, in the United States, the vast majority of businesses are closed, more than at most other times of the year. Thus when Scrooge only grudgingly allowed his clerk to have Christmas Day off, we judge him as particularly insensitive. But in Dickens’s time many businesses remained open on Christmas Day, something that the Puritans had pushed for more than a century earlier.”

“Scrooge’s earlier preference to work through Christmas Day seems more cruel to us now, with our cultural assumptions, than it would have been to Dickens’s contemporaries. In writing his story, Dickens was an advocate in the controversies of his day, encouraging the revival or reinvention of Christmas traditions, persuading businesses to close for the holiday, and promoting acts of kindness and charity as an appropriate focus. This is why he wanted Scrooge to look unsympathetic when he insisted on working on Christmas Day, and that is why he wanted Scrooge to change his heart, because he wanted England to do the same thing.”

Truly, the book’s influence has been as broad as it is lasting!

From all of us at the University of California Press, we wish you and your loved ones a safe and joyful holiday season.


The extraordinary story of an ordinary plant: the Christmas Poinsettia

From the gift-giving customs to the decorations, the American Christmas is a combination of elements from the many diverse cultures that have left their influence on the country over the centuries. While the European origins of the evergreen Christmas tree and of Saint Nicholas’ transformation into the American Santa Claus are more well known, what of the poinsettia? As Bruce David Forbes notes in America’s Favorite Holidays, the holiday flower’s roots are surprisingly close to home– and surprisingly humble.

Originating in Mexico and well-known to the Aztecs, the iconic red petals of this beautiful winter bloom are, in actuality, leaves–the real flowers are the yellow buds in the center. “What is significant is that the plant comes to full bloom in December, responding to reduced sunlight,” writes Forbes, “and thus it is an ideal symbol or decoration for winter celebrations.”

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“So, on December 25, when Christians remembered the nativity of Jesus, this flower was blooming in Mexico. A touching folktale arose about a little peasant girl who wanted to bring a gift to the Christ child but, in tears, realized that she had nothing beautiful enough to offer. Nevertheless she brought a handful of ordinary weeds to the cradle of the baby Jesus, and in a miracle he turned them into brilliant red flowers. Thus the plants received the name flores de Nochebuena, or flowers of the Holy Night.

It so happens that the first United States ambassador to Mexico was an amateur botanist. His name was Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, and he was instrumental in bringing cuttings of the plant back to the United States in about 1828.”

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“Today, according to the Society of American Florists, Christmas and Hanukkah constitute the number one floral-buying holiday in the United States (more than Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day), and of the flowering plants purchased in the Christmas season, about three-fourths are poinsettias.” What a legacy for an “ordinary” plant!

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For more about the history of Christmas and other iconic American celebrations, check out Bruce David Forbes’ America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Historiesavailable now.


Give thanks to Sarah Josepha Buelle Hale

Most Americans know the story of Thanksgiving, but the woman who helped ensure its status as a national holiday, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, is a little less well known. Hale was an educated woman, prolific writer (of novels, poems, essays, and even the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”!), magazine editor, and an advocate for women’s education and numerous other causes—including the cause for a national day of thanks.

Hale portrait, 1831
Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

Bruce David Forbes explores Hale’s legacy in his new book, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories:

“In 1846, with Godey’s Lady’s Book [the magazine Hale edited] as her base of influence, Hale began writing strongly worded editorials every year promoting Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and the November issues of her magazine were filled with Thanksgiving poems, heartwarming short stories about family gatherings for Thanksgiving dinner, cooking advice, and much more. Hale understood that the first step was to persuade as many states as possible to adopt the holiday, and then a national mandate might follow.”

Hale letter to Lincoln
1863 letter from Hale to President Lincoln discussing Thanksgiving

“The bandwagon rolled along, pushed by Sarah Josepha Hale and supported by New Englanders scattered throughout the nation. New York had adopted the holiday in 1817, and Michigan in 1824, but the greatest number of states joined in the 1840s. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa added Thanksgiving in the 1850s. By 1860, Thanksgiving had been officially proclaimed in thirty states and two territories; territories sometimes declared the holiday even before they received statehood.”

Hale didn’t live to see Thanksgiving legally become a national holiday, but as we can all attest today, her efforts were certainly not in vain!

See here for other recent posts on the history behind our holidays.


Did You Know? 7 Facts about Halloween

The way that Americans celebrate Halloween is so culturally established that it’s often difficult to imagine it without its many defining themes and icons. But the way these long-standing traditions were established can be a mystery. How did this holiday come to be the way that it is today, and how is it still changing?

Before you don your costume, here are some facts about Halloween’s past you might not have known from Bruce David Forbes’ America’s Favorite Holidays.

1. The Halloween that we know today has roots in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain.

“Celts believed that this was the one time of the year when the veil between earthly reality and the spirit world was especially thin. . . With their attention focused on the spirits of the dead and on ghosts and fairies, the Celts countered dread and uncertainty with bonfires to push back the darkness, and perhaps with ritual dancing and masks or costumes, either to hide from the spirit creatures or to scare them away. This belief in a temporary opening between this world and the otherworld helps set the tone for what eventually becomes known as Halloween.”

Halloween_Sweden

2. Halloween’s name comes from the Christian observance of All Saints’ Day.

Some speculate that this holiday, moved from early May to the first of November to supplant the secular Samhain. “Whatever the motivation, November 1 became All Saints’ Day, eventually in Ireland too, and a century later All Souls’ Day was added on November 2 and became widely adopted in the western church by the 1300s. All Souls’ Day was mostly a time of prayer on behalf of the dead who were in purgatory, temporarily between heaven and hell. . . There was the evening before All Saints’ Day, called All Hallows’ Evening or Eve, and then the day itself, All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallows or Hallowmas.”

"Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

3. The Black Death contributed to Halloween’s darkly humorous focus on skeletons and death.

The plague, which terrorized Europe in the late Middle Ages, “gave rise to a morbid sense of humor and a gruesome fascination with skeletons and paintings of the Dance of Death or the Dance Macabre, which became absorbed into Halloween imagery. As summarized by Halloween historian Lisa Morton, ‘The new common obsession with depictions of skeletal Grim Reapers found a natural home in a festival once thought to be the night when the dead crossed over into the world of the living.'”

Wickiana54. The witch trials in the late Middle Ages influenced many key themes of both Halloween and Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

Scotland, a Celtic nation, had thousands of witch trials during the period between the late 1500s and early 1700s. “The first major examples were the North Berwick witch trials, begun in 1590, which garnered a lot of attention because King James VI of Scotland presided over them himself. . . . In a union of crowns, this James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, and only a few years later Shakespeare wrote his renowned play Macbeth, which includes Scottish kings, murderous plots, and witches. The trials of North Berwick incited ongoing fear of witches, prompting over two thousand additional trials in Scotland in the following years. Witches, the Devil, brooms, and black cats had become a part of Scottish culture.”

"Traditional Irish halloween Jack-o'-lantern" by Rannpháirtí anaithnid at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Traditional Irish halloween Jack-o’-lantern” by Rannpháirtí anaithnid at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

5. The iconic Halloween pumpkin could have been a Halloween turnip.

“In Ireland, small lanterns were created by
hollowing out a turnip or a beet and placing a candle inside, to light the way as people ventured through the night. The flickering light from the lanterns looked similar to the flashes of light that arose from peat bogs or marshes, flashes that appeared mysteriously and vanished quickly and were believed to be ghosts or fairies. . . . When the Irish came to the New World they found a new kind of squash, the pumpkin, native to North America and much larger than the turnip of old. The Irish quickly adopted the pumpkin as a replacement, again carving it and placing a light inside, creating what has become the bright orange symbol for the modern Halloween.”

6. Trick or treating really did involve actual tricks in early America.

Trick or treating, again carried over from Scottish tradition, comes from the practice of ‘guising’, or appearing in disguise. “As it developed in Scotland in particular, young adults in costume went door to door on the evening of October 31 to entertain by singing songs, telling stories, or performing sleight-of-hand tricks in return for something sweet. . . . The crowds solicited food and money, but in many cases they were more interested in pranks, and the phrase “trick or treat” arose in that context. The first known published use of the phrase appeared in Canada in 1927, and the first Halloween appearance in the United States was in a 1934 Oregon newspaper. . . So-called tricks, seen as good fun by the perpetrators, were indeed carried out, but many recipients viewed this activity as threatening. Unhinging front gates and discarding them blocks away, overturning outhouses, or splashing paint on buildings were no laughing matter for many citizens.”

A82d_1

7. Halloween is one of the fastest-growing holidays for consumers.

Although several other holidays rank above Halloween in purchases every year, including Valentine’s Day and even the Super Bowl, Halloween spending is still at an all-time high. “In 2014, the National Retail Federation’s annual consumer spending survey indicated that Americans would spend $7.4 billion for Halloween. Of this, $2.8 billion, or 38 percent, was for costumes. (The other two major Halloween expenditures are candy at $2.2 billion and decorations at $2 billion.) Subdivided, $1.1 billion was for children’s costumes, but even more—$1.4 billion—was for adults. There was even $350 million budgeted for pet costumes!”

Learn more about the curious and oft-surprising histories of American’s culturally important holidays in America’s Favorite Holidays.


“Everyone’s Entitled to One Good Scare”: Halloween Horror in America’s Favorite Holidays

From its beginnings as the Celtic festival of Samhain to its connections to the Christian All Saint’s Day to its domestication for children in the early 20th century, the celebration of Halloween has undergone a dramatic, centuries-long metamorphosis. Even the modern traditions of gore and terror are a relatively new invention, following 50 or so years of sanitized, family-friendly trick-or-treating and costumes alone.

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Bruce David Forbes explores the candid history of Halloween’s return to horror, and adult participation in its festivities, in America’s Favorite Holidays:

Theatrical poster for Friday the 13th (1980).
Theatrical poster for Friday the 13th (1980).

John Carpenter’s 1978 movie played a role. … Halloween‘s success helped launch at least two other horror movie series, Friday the 13th, featuring Jason (eleven sequels and a remake), and Nightmare on Elm Street, with Freddy Krueger (seven sequels and a remake), plus countless other films, some gory, some frightening, some spoofs.”

“The surprise success of this low-budget movie and its successors can be explained at least partially by the desire of young adults to be included in Halloween festivities. From their perspective, this was a night for pretending and experimenting, for some release from societal inhibitions, and for playing with adult themes of fear and death, all of which was missing from a sanitized children’s costume parade. The movies helped add young adult participation back into Halloween.”

Theatrical poster for The Nightmare Before Christmas, (1993).
Theatrical poster for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

“Tim Burton, the noted film director and producer and co-writer of The Nightmare before Christmas, summarized the spirit of Halloween very well: “To me, Hallowe’en has always been the most fun night of the year. It’s where rules are dropped and you can be anything at all. Fantasy rules. It’s only scary in a funny way. Nobody’s out to really scare anybody to death. They’re out to delight people with their scariness, which is what Hallowe’en is all about.”

Learn more about the history of Halloween, Christmas and other seasonal standbys in America’s Favorite Holidays, releasing this month.