By Alicia Bertrand, M.A.
Canadians LOVE Halloween. We love to dress up in our costumes, even if we have to wear our snowsuits underneath. Canadian adults love lining up in the rain or sleet to get into a bar to win “Best Costume” and flirt with Dracula, a Minion, or a zombie nurse. Canadians also created several well-loved horror movies, including Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, Ginger Snaps, Videodrome, and The Changeling to name a few. The first instance of the term “trick-or-treat” regarding Halloween activities was in an Alberta newspaper. How did Canadians grow to love spooky season so much? What costumes and stories can we gather from Canadians to remember these celebrations for generations to come? In this article, I will give an overview of the history of how Halloween began in Canada, feature archival photos and stories from across Canada, and remind everyone that indigenous traditional clothing is not a Halloween costume.
The word Hallowe’en (or Halloween) is etymologically Christian and comes from “All Hallows Eve”, the eve of All Saint’s Day which Pope Gregory III designated as a day to honour saints. Some folklorists argue that Halloween derived from the Roman feast day of Pomona, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Most literature attributes the supernatural traditions of Halloween to the Celtic autumn festival Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”). Samhain was an agricultural festival, and one that signalled the community to stock up for the winter. The word “spooky” derives from the Celtic folklore of the púca, a fairy creature from Irish folklore. The púca was also known for its trickery, thus, it fits in perfectly with Halloween’s pranks and tricks.
Early Halloween in Canada
The earliest mentions of Halloween in Canadian newspapers were in the 1820s regarding Scottish literature, including Robert Burns’ Halloween (1785) poem. Around 1840, Irish and Scottish immigrants that arrived in the Maritimes after they fled during the potato famine, or came to aid in the building of the Ottawa canal in the 1820s, had begun to spread their practice of Halloween. These immigrants participated in activities that have lived on for almost two centuries. They bobbed for apples, played snap-apple, lit bonfires, collected treats from neighbours, practiced divination, and played pranks on neighbours. There are records owned by the CBC Archives of communities on the east coast gathering in farmhouses to practice these Irish and Scottish traditions.
In Nova Scotia, a German Christmas custom was taken on by inhabitants called ‘belsnickling’, in which costumed performers went house to house and offered ‘tricks’ to receive food or drink in return. The act of scaring children while costumed was also part of the ‘belsnickling’ performance. Dressing in costume or guising was also an aspect of Samhain tradition to confuse the souls of the dead or demons. In 1911, a reporter for The Ottawa Journal described the superstitious beliefs that farmers in his Quebec community of the Gaspé Peninsula had for Halloween. No farmer was to plough their fields or their crops will be covered in blood, and candles were to be burned all night long in every room of one’s house while the souls of the dead walked the earth.
Early celebrations of Halloween in Canada revolved around dinner parties, such as one of the first reported Halloween soirees on October 31, 1860, hosted by James Salmon, owner of the Grand River Hotel in Ottawa, Ontario. In 1861, The Kingston Whig-Standard reported that “Halloween is the night when young women play ungodly games to find out their future destiny, and go eavesdropping among the neighbours to catch the sound of their husbands’ name. Halloween is the night when old folks sit round the hearth cracking nuts and telling ghost stories. And Halloween is the night when country young men (in Canada) rob the cabbage gardens and play tricks with other people’s chattels, thinking it fun to hide them where they can’t be found for months…This is fun in Canada!”
One Canadian wrote that “Innocent fun held high revelry on Halloween in the older provinces of Canada not so many years ago, and doubtless many who read these lines will look back with tender memories to the days “when we were all boys together,” when ducking for apples, pulling the cabbage stock, or eating an apple while looking into a mirror at midnight with the certainty of seeing the ideal one peeping over your shoulder.” If Canadians did not celebrate Halloween at a fancy party, there were dances, community gatherings, church functions, and children’s parties to attend.
As early as 1898, the Vancouver Daily World reported that “young people” inaugurated the tradition of “paying friendly visits to the residences while disguised”. Kingston’s The Daily Standard reported on children and older teens going door-to-door for candies. Stories from Oshawa, Ontario, include R.S. McLaughlin, the founder of General Motors of Canada, who handed out full chocolate bars and grab bags at his grand Parkwood Estate, where he and his family lived from 1917 to 1972. Allegedly, in the 1950s, he gave the first 100 children to his door a silver dollar. Also in Oshawa, Armstrong Funeral Home handed out hot dogs on Halloween night.
The “party favour” (what we would consider a trick or treat bucket) and mask below, advertised in 1910 in Winnipeg, Manitoba are scary enough, they did not need anything more!
Irish and Scottish immigrants also brought the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns to Canada. The term comes from an old Irish tale of Stingy Jack, who is forced to carry a lantern while he walks the dimension between Heaven and Hell. He used a hollowed-out turnip. Early jack-o-lanterns in Canada were made of beets, potatoes, and turnips. The scary face was carved, and the light within was meant to scare away spirits or Stingy Jack. In Canada, the large and easily hollowed-out pumpkin became the favoured legume of choice over time. However, the look of an original jack-o-lantern turnip from Ireland is an absolute thing of nightmares.
In 1898, the Vancouver Daily World reported that Halloween pranks were not an issue that year. It noted that in past years police officers were busy on Halloween night with mischievous boys. However, in 1929, in Woodside, Nova Scotia, “The children…were out in force last evening at their usual Halloween pranks, the smaller ones being content with masquerading around the houses for their supply of apples, while the older ones went on the rampage, taking up gates and rooting up bridges, doorsteps, swings, and anything moveable.” In 1930, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Halifax Mail reported that residents of Richmond Heights had their clothing cut into pieces out on the clothing line on Halloween night. In 1950, male students at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg raided the girls’ residence on the Fort Garry campus and dumped girls out of their beds on Halloween night. In 1959, a farmer in Vancouver found Halloween pranksters had built a brick wall in front of his property.
Although the reason is unclear, perhaps due to Halloween pranks, on Halloween night in 1936, six children aged 9 to 14 were jailed in Richmond Hill, Ontario in a room next to the “transients”. Constable Roscoe Casement stated that he acted on orders from the reeve. However, the action incensed a “large crowd of youths” and at least one of the parents of an imprisoned boy to break them out of the small prison building. 11-year-old Stanley Baker and 9-year-old Murray Bowes were reported to be “nervous” days after the ordeal.
In 1974, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix columnist Pat O’Dwyer recalled his memories of “Halloween when Saskatchewan was much younger”. He reminisced about one disgusting prank that Saskatchewan youths participated in on Halloween night: “A popular target was the family outhouse. A strange code required a gang of small boys to topple every outhouse, including that of his own family. As years went on, however, the gang eliminated the stupidity of self-infliction by agreeing to leave their outdoor plumbing unmolested. After all, those who dumped their own little structures had to get busy the next day after and set up the essential edifice again.”
Unfortunately, Halloween pranks became deadly for some revellers. Several people, even children, were killed during Halloween pranks, mostly due to the improper use of a gun. Violent pranks led to greater police presence on Halloween nights in large cities across Canada. Due to that, and the growth of the UNICEF charity initiative, fewer pranks occurred.
History of Racist Costumes in Canada
Halloween’s history in Canada does not come without issues of racism. Costumes from the past, and even present, convey images of racial stereotypes, misappropriating the traditional dress of certain cultures, and overtly sexualizing and fetishizing women of certain races or cultures. Wearing costumes that depict “the Indian Princess”, “Pocahontas” or any native ceremonial and traditional attire is racist. Audra Foggin, an assistant professor at Mount Royal University, reminds Canadians that “Donning a Halloween costume that depicts or recreates and entrenches stereotypes of First Nations peoples in Canada is harmful and discriminatory. These items that [people] are dressed up in often are headdresses, which hold sacred meaning for Indigenous people. It is mockery and demeaning to do so.”
In The Winnipeg Tribune in October 1911, an advertisement for costumes included racial epithets against Black Canadians. Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been in trouble for multiple instances of inappropriate Halloween costumes, some of which included “blackface”. Blackface is a practice that began in minstrel shows that caricatured people of African descent, usually in a negative manner. Philip S. S. Howard, a McGill University professor, stated that “minstrelsy was very common throughout Canada into the 1970s” and “reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between racial fetishization/fascination as found in contemporary blackface, the foundational white supremacy of the Canadian settler-colonial context, and the always uneven terms upon which blackness is included in Canada.” When young people and teens in the past two decades have been confronted for their inappropriate blackface costumes on Halloween, or for other events, they are defensive and do not learn from their peers why it is an issue.
Racism and caricature stereotypes of Asian culture and appearance have also been utilized in past Canadian Halloween costumes. In 2015, Quebec Liberal MP Linda Lapointe dressed in an ethnic Chinese outfit for Halloween to take her children trick-or-treating and thought it was okay to wear because she bought it in China. However, as Chase Lo, Executive Director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, Toronto Chapter, said: “the outfit was offensive because of the context in which it was worn. Halloween is meant to be a time when people wear costumes that are supposed to be funny, fantastical, or scary.” There are some images of Asian cultural dress, or the caricature of them, below in the gallery in order to educate readers and help everyone understand that there is a line between appreciation and appropriation.
Canada’s Halloween History in Images
It was a difficult decision to use historical photos with racist stereotypes, blackface, cultural appropriation, using one’s cultural dress as a costume, etc. However, it is important that these images not be censored or excluded so Canadians understand that our history includes racism and misogyny. As Canadians, we need to acknowledge our past and learn from it. Above an offensive image, I have put a warning so that you can scroll to the next image if you do not wish to even look upon it. I would also like to note that the archives and newspapers I used for my research are missing the valuable input of black, indigenous, Asian, and other peoples of colour in Canada’s experiences on Halloween. If you would like to submit any photos or stories, especially if you identify as BIPoC, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your experiences and voices are valued.
Copyright disclaimer: The photos below are for historical and educational purposes only. They are in chronological order. I do not own the copyright to these images. Please see their original source for more details. Many amazing photos I came across were protected by copyright and could not be reproduced. No offence is meant to any province I did not obtain photos for, there were some provinces with very strict copyright protections. Thank you to Nicole at the Canadian Heritage Photography Foundation, Eric at Siwik Productions, and Andrea from the Globe and Mail for their help.
Happy Halloween from Ancestry by Alicia!
Warning: the photos below contain racially insensitive, and cultural misappropriation costumes.
Warning: the photo below possibly shows blackface although many “hobo” costumes included darkening the face.
Warning: possible use of blackface on the right-hand side in the background.
Warning: the photo below contains blackface, racially insensitive, and cultural misappropriation costumes.
Warning: the photo below contains blackface.
Warning: the photo below shows blackface.
Warning: the photo below shows blackface
Warning: the photo below includes cultural stereotypes
 Sara Constantineau, “”Black Christmas”: The Slasher Film Was Made in Canada”, Cineaction; Toronto, Ont. (2010): 58-63.
 Meg Shields, “10 Best Canadian Horror Movies,” Filmschoolrejects.com, October 6, 2020, Online at: https://filmschoolrejects.com/canadian-horror/
 Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, (London: Reaktion Press, 2012), pg. 79.
 Andrew McIntosh, “Halloween in Canada”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, October 25, 2012; Heather Thomas, “The Origins of Halloween Traditions”, Library of Congress, October 26, 2021.
 Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), pg. 11.
 McIntosh, “Halloween in Canada”.
 Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) Monday, December 25, 1826, pg. 1; Montreal Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) Tuesday, September 07, 1847, pg. 2; The Hamilton Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) Friday, November 03, 1854, pg. 7.
 Archives Alberta, “History of Halloween in Canada”, Archives Alberta, October 31, 2016, online at: https://archivesalberta.wordpress.com/2016/10/31/history-of-halloween-in-canada/
 Morton, 79.
 The Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) Wednesday, November 01, 1911, pg. 10.
 Ottawa Daily Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) Friday, November 02, 1860, pg. 3; The Daily Standard (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) Monday, November 06, 1911, pg. 10; The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), Saturday, October 28, 1911, pg. 14.
 The Kingston Whig-Standard (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) Thursday, October 31, 1861, pg. 2.
 Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Friday, October 31, 1890, pg. 2.
 Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), Tuesday, October 11, 1910, pg. 8; The Evening Mail (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), Saturday, November 04, 1905, pg. 14; The Edmonton Bulletin (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) Thursday, October 20, 1910, pg. 3.
 Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Wednesday, November 02, 1898, pg. 6.
 Obtained from stories on Vintage Oshawa Facebook group.
 McIntosh, “Halloween in Canada”.
 Vancouver Daily World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Tuesday, November 01, 1898, pg. 3.
 The Evening Mail (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada) Thursday, November 01, 1928, pg. 22
 Halifax Mail (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), Friday, October 31, 1930, pg. 16.
 Calgary Herald (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) Thursday, November 02, 1950, pg. 4.
 Toronto Daily Star (Toronto, Ontario) 02 Nov 1936, pg. 3.
 Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada) Friday, October 25, 1974, pg. 40; The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada) Saturday, October 28, 1978, pg. 74.
 The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Monday, November 01, 1937, pg. 8; The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Thursday, November 03, 1932, pg. 7; The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada) Thursday, November 02, 1939, pg. 11.
 Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada) Wednesday, October 31, 1956, pg. 6; The Sun Times (Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada) Thursday, October 30, 1975, pg. 1.
 Anis Heydari, “Halloween costumes depicting their culture ‘demeaning,’ say Calgary Indigenous people,” CBC News, September 25, 2018, online at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/indigenous-halloween-costumes-calgary-1.4837220
 The Winnipeg Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) Friday, October 27, 1911, pg. 11.
 For an explanation of the history of blackface in Canada, one resource you can read is: Arts Against PostRacialism, “Blackface in Canada”, McGill University, online at: https://www.mcgill.ca/aapr/blackface-canada; David A. Graham, “Canada’s Surprising History of Blackface”, The Atlantic, September 20, 2019,
 Ibid; Philip S. S. Howard, “On the back of blackness: contemporary Canadian blackface and the consumptive production of post-racialist, white Canadian subjects”, Social Identities, (2018), 24:1, pp.87-103.
 Dakshana Bascaramurty, “‘It never went away’: Canada’s troubling history with blackface”, The Globe and Mail, September 20, 2019, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canadas-troubling-history-with-blackface/
 Robin Levinson King, “Liberal MP Linda Lapointe dressed up as Chinese person for Halloween”, Toronto Star, Nov. 17, 2015, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2015/11/17/liberal-mp-linda-lapointe-dressed-up-as-chinese-person-for-halloween.html