5 Halloween Food Myths Unmasked

Myth: Halloween has always been synonymous with mass quantities of candy. Illustration by Lila Volkas
Myth: Halloween has always been synonymous with mass quantities of candy. Illustration by Lila Volkas

Illustrations by Lila Volkas

1) Myth: Halloween has always been synonymous with mass quantities of candy

Fact: Actually, the candy connection only took root in the 1950's when trick or treating became widespread. In the first half of the 20th century, Halloween meant homey festivities where costumed revelers played games and enjoyed traditional fall foods such as apples, gingerbread, popcorn and cider. Sweets appeared as color-coordinated party fare. Festive serving tables at a 1921 Halloween gala displayed dishes of orange and black gumdrops and jellybeans.

Early in the last century, the holiday tilted more towards “trick” than “treat.” To prevent the pervasive pranks of soaped windows, unhinged gates and egged cars perpetrated by ”rowdies from the other side of town,” a 1939 women’s magazine suggested hosting a Halloween open house for neighborhood youngsters.

When children began to visit their friends' houses, they were often presented with wrapped homemade cookies or popcorn balls to take home. After WWII’s sugar rationing was lifted, national candy companies encouraged tots to try on consumerism. Currently, more than 2 billion dollars is spent annually on Halloween candy.

Myth: Halloween sadists regularly poison children’s treats. Illustration by Lila Volkas
Myth: Halloween sadists regularly poison children’s treats. Illustration by Lila Volkas

2) Myth: Halloween sadists regularly poison children’s treats

Fact: Widespread Halloween candy tampering is an urban legend--that like vampires--just won’t die. Sociologist Joel Best has been investigating allegations of strangers poisoning kids’ Halloween candy for 30 years. As of this 2013 Smithsonian article, “he hasn’t identified a single confirmed example of a stranger murdering a child in this fashion.”

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Nevertheless, the annual mass paranoia was possibly fueled by one actual gruesome crime perpetrated in 1974, when 30-year old Ronald O’Bryan, a Texas optician, laced a handful of Pixy Stix with cyanide and handed them out to several children. After his 8-year-old son, Timothy died from ingesting the poisoned candy, an investigation revealed that Mr. O’Bryan was deeply in debt and had just taken out large life insurance policies on his son and daughter. He was found guilty of murder and executed in 1984.

But even before this monstrous act, the media ghoulishly stoked the fires of fear with yearly exhortations. In 1970, even the esteemed New York Times, fabricated a haunted house of words, warning: “those Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend...may bring them more horror than happiness. That plump red apple that Junior gets from the kindly old woman down the block may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate “candy” may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.” (As quoted in Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, page 5.)

While parents understandably want to protect their young ‘uns from harm, perhaps the ritual spilling of the sugary loot on the living room floor for inspection currently has more to do with mom or dad picking out the best (chocolate?) morsels for themselves.

Myth: Apples played an innocent role in Halloweens gone-by. Illustration by Lila Volkas
Myth: Apples played an innocent role in Halloweens gone-by. Illustration by Lila Volkas

3) Myth: Apples played an innocent role in Halloweens gone-by

Fact: Long before bobbing for apples became a wholesome kiddie game, apples took on significance in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, a festival of fire honoring the dead in Northern Europe, which marked the beginning of the "darker half" of the year. Celebrated from sunset, October 31 to sunset, November 1, it eventually morphed into our American Halloween.

During Samhain, it was believed that ghosts would be released from their graves. The Celtic priests (aka Druids) used various methods of divination to communicate with the spirits and foretell the future.

When the Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, they brought along some apple trees. The apple was an emblem of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees and fertility, whose harvest festival was observed on November 1 and eventually the Roman and Celtic traditions intermingled.

When an apple is sliced through the middle, its seeds form a 5-pointed star or pentagram, which the Celts also viewed as a symbol of fertility. From this belief, evolved various methods of using apples to determine future marriage prospects. During the annual fall celebrations, young unmarried people would try to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string. The first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to marry. Girls could also place the apple they bobbed under their pillows in hopes of dreaming of their future lover. If a young woman peeled an apple in a long spiral, swung it over her head three times and tossed it over her shoulder, it was believed that the shape it landed in would form the first letter of her future husband’s name.

“The people of Ireland, Scotland and Wales kept their ancient November eve traditions alive through age-old games and folkways. They used apples or nuts to divine the future...and asked spirits about matters of love. The immigration of Scots and Irish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the Celtic celebrations to the U.S." (From A Halloween How-to, page 12.)

Caramel covered or hard candy apples are still a traditional treat this time of year. So instead of using OkCupid, you may want to examine your candy apple carefully for romantic clues.

Myth: Jolly Jack o’ Lanterns are as American as apple pie. Illustration by Lila Volkas
Myth: Jolly Jack o’ Lanterns are as American as apple pie. Illustration by Lila Volkas

4) Myth: Jolly Jack o’ Lanterns are as American as apple pie

Fact: The roots of pumpkin carving actually point to turnips. Vegetable carving has been a common practice around the world for many hundreds of years. The Maori carved lanterns from gourds more than 700 years ago. To arrive at modern day grinning pumpkin faces adorning front porches, we have Irish immigrants to thank (again) for bringing over their folktale of Stingy Jack, a trickster who made a deal with the Devil. After years outsmarting the Devil, the story goes, old Jack’s body finally succumbed to the ravages of age and he craved eternal rest. Because of his malicious mischief, however, Jack was not allowed into Heaven, so he went down to Hell. Out of revenge for his tricks, the Devil refused him entrance and tossed him an everlasting burning ember to light his endless wandering.

As there were no pumpkins in the British Isles, Jack carved a turnip to carry his eternal light. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O' Lantern.”

In Ireland and Scotland, people believed that spirits and ghosts could enter their world on Halloween. To avoid being visited by demons they created their own versions of Jack's lantern by carving fearsome faces into turnips or potatoes, lighting them with candles, and placing them in windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets were used. (from Haunted Bay.com.)

Immigrants from these countries brought their jack-o'-lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o'-lanterns. They were softer and easier to carve than the turnips and potatoes of their homeland.

As one of the earliest known food crops in the Americas, pumpkins had actually already saved lives. Indians introduced pumpkins and squashes to the Pilgrims. Pumpkins were an important food source for the Pilgrims, as they stored well, which meant they would have a nutritious food source during the winter months. Without pumpkins many of the early settlers might have died from starvation. (From all about pumpkins.com.)

Myth: Candy Corn was invented specifically for Halloween treat giving. Illustration by Lila Volkas
Myth: Candy Corn was invented specifically for Halloween treat giving. Illustration by Lila Volkas

5) Myth: Candy Corn was invented specifically for Halloween treat giving

Fact: In the 1880s, way before puny pirates and princesses dragged their bulging pillowcases door to door, a Philadelphia candymaker first fashioned these tricolor treats by hand, using carnauba wax--yes, the same ingredient that makes your car shiny. But it wasn't until 1898, when the Goelitz Confectionery Company--the family-owned business now better known in these parts as Jelly Belly--manufactured this classic sweet on a large scale.

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Their yellow, orange and white triangles, originally named "Chicken Feed," were packed in boxes decorated with a crowing rooster. In 1900, the tricornered tidbits became their most popular confection, outselling licorice, peppermints and even chocolate. Originally, the sweets weren’t associated with any specific holiday and were even promoted for Independence Day. After WWII, however, candy corn was advertised as a Halloween candy and by 1951, the Goelitz Company had 12 factories around the country devoted to ‘”cultivating” candy corn.

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