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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
A History of
Halloween Pranks

Michael Barr
There was a time when relocating outhouses was the main form of mischief for country boys on the last night in October. Halloween hasn't been the same since the introduction of indoor plumbing.

Halloween probably began with the Celts as a harvest festival, held on the last day in October. That day marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.
Spring Creek TX - Outhouse
Outhouse
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, March 2008

According to Celtic legend the worlds of the living and the dead mingled on the last night of harvest season, so on that night the Celts in Ireland and Scotland wore costumes and lit fires to ward off rampaging ghosts and evil spirits.

That same evening hungry people went door to door asking for food. If they were turned away, they left some sign of their unhappiness.

You see where I'm going with this?

It was not until the mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century that Halloween became a major event in North America. References to Halloween first appeared in West Texas newspapers in the 1870s. Blame it on the Irish.

Pranks, then, are as old as Halloween and are an outgrowth of the trick or treat tradition of the Celtic harvest festival. Of course some pranks go too far - any doofus can be destructive - but a really good prank, while sometimes annoying to the prankee, is basically harmless. The very best pranks are products of imagination, inspiration, a lot of thought, and a sophisticated sense of humor.

The most popular Halloween prank in 19th Century West Texas was stealing gates. Of course the gates weren't really stolen. They could be found the next morning stacked on the lawn at the courthouse.

Another popular West Texas prank was to take apart a wagon and reassemble it on top of a building. If the wagon belonged to a snooty person without a sense of humor, so much the better.

Some pranksters would hoist a rocking chair on top of a barn or run a pair of underwear up the flagpole. Occasionally someone found a mule in the basement.

And then there was the outhouse. Sometimes boys would just move it a few feet to one side, but at other times, through great effort, the outhouse was relocated to the courthouse lawn or the mayor's front yard. Think of it as a political statement.

In the 20th century, young people would soap car windows and string toilet paper in trees. They would grease doorknobs. If you parked your Volkswagen Beetle on the street you might find it had been picked up and placed on the sidewalk.

Rearranging signs was another favorite Halloween prank. A "No Loitering" sign might appear on the lawn of the funeral home or a "Closed Until Further Notice," sign in front of the school. One West Texas town woke up on November 1st to find a sign in front of its bank announcing a "Going Out of Business Sale."

Outside a tight small circle of co-conspirators, a prankster tried to remain anonymous until a judicious amount of time, and the statute of limitations, had passed. A true artist, after all, wants to take credit for his work.

One Halloween several years ago someone thought it would be funny to put a large "For Sale" sign in the principal's front yard.

I'm still trying to find out who did it.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights" October 30, 2016 Column
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