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Halloween From the Start

Since the first residents of Greenbelt were moving in just a little before Halloween, and the new town’s newspaper, The Cooperator, published its first edition in November 1937, we only have a few references to that first October 31. New Greenbelt resident Gladys Long shared her memories in an oral history. "The first Halloween in 1937 -- a party held at Center School in the auditorium. We were asked to dress in clothes that we wore on the day we moved in, and not to wear masks, as we were all newcomers. We drew numbers as to partners. I drew a fine young family man from Crescent Road and my husband drew Mrs. Teddy Murray. Our friendship with the Murrays has continued all these years."

The table at a Halloween-themed birthday party at Greenbelt pioneer family, the Gerstel's home, circa 1949. Courtesy Marshall Gerstel.

A bit of historical background about Halloween in the 1930’s tells us that organized celebrations like the one at Center School were becoming the norm. For many years, adults were quite tolerant of juvenile pranks on October 31. However, in 1933, during the Great Depression, there was widespread destruction by young men across the country on All Hallows’ Eve, including the overturning of vehicles, sawing of telephone poles and other acts of mayhem. After this, adults began organizing events to channel the energy more appropriately. Haunted houses, trick or treating, costume parades, and parties became popular.

By the next year, Greenbelt was holding its “first masquerade” in the school auditorium, with awards for best costumes and “Halloween surprises.” Tickets were delivered door to door by the Girl Scouts. The elementary school classes also held parties for the holiday, inviting their mothers as guests. Since the school was progressive, the children learned by doing, and part of their lesson was costume planning and design.

1939 saw a costume parade at the school and numerous children’s “open air masquerade” parties, with a large one held at the circle near 33 Ridge Road, D block. The costumed children were “shouting, blowing horns, and whirring rattlers.”

Leo Gerton, long-time proprietor of the High's Dairy Store that was in the Center, helps several youngsters with the annual Trick or Treat for UNICEF drive. Photo by Seymour Kaplan. Greenbelt Museum Collection

Costume parades moved to the Youth Center, and on to the shopping center where they are held currently. Trick or Treat for UNICEF, collecting money door to door for UN children’s charities, started in the 1950s and was an annual endeavor with local sponsorship. In 1956 the children of Greenbelt collected $263 for UNICEF, going door to door.

Trick or Treating for candy in Greenbelt was popular from quite early on. Children could cover a lot of ground and collect a great deal of treats because of the dense layout of the homes. In the 1970's kids all spread the word of the top houses to visit, with the top recommendation being a former mayor’s home that was known for giving out full sized candy bars!

Greenbelt had significant problems with vandalism and pranks at Halloween time throughout many years. The police force beefed up its numbers with auxiliary recruits to handle holiday misdeeds in Greenbelt. Youths were known to abuse the Mother and Child statue in the (Roosevelt) Center. Broken windows, cut clotheslines, smashed outdoor lights, air let out of tires, were all Halloween night problems in the past. A woman was shot with an air rifle through her window. One of the most upsetting events was an act of anti-Semitic vandalism in 1943, where some youths painted a family name and an obscene expression against their religion on the family’s garage door. The police took this very seriously.

Newer additions to the Halloween festivities in Greenbelt include the Pumpkin Festival/Pumpkin Walk through the forest preserve, and the Fall Festival at Schrom Hills Park. This year the holiday will be celebrated a bit differently for health and safety reasons, but we can still enjoy seeing our neighborhood decorated, costumes and home centered fun! Check out the Museum’s scavenger hunt, if you’re looking for a CDC-approved activity.

Did you grow up in Greenbelt? What were your families Halloween traditions? Was your house decorated? We'd love to hear from you. Below are some of the vintage Halloween decorations that we display at the Museum's historic house. The house, sadly, isn't open this year, but hopefully we'll be able to put it all on display again next year.

Extra Credit: Learn all about the Trick or Treat for UNICEF tradition on their website. There's even a short film to watch!

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