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THE ORIGIN OF THE HALLOWE’EN TREE

By Philip A. Shreffler

Today, pretty much everybody who genuinely loves Hallowe’en knows what a Hallowe’en Tree is—the festive and macabre equinoctial version of a Christmas tree. Hallowe’en Trees have become so popular that, from variety stores on the low end to Christopher Radko at the high end, increasingly elaborate ornaments have been created expressly for them. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the last century—in 1971 to be precise—even those whose favorite holiday Hallowe’en was seemed not to have come up with the idea. That is, until by a happy and almost accidental set of circumstances, I did it myself.

Living in suburban St. Louis and having just received my Master’s Degree in English from Washington University, I was embarking on what was to be a thirty-year career as an English professor and a writer. I was twenty-three at the time, an age when the most ambitious folk are looking ahead to a lifetime of success. But I never forgot my childhood delight in everything about Hallowe’en, about monsters, about the supernatural, about playing and having great fun at it.

One evening (I’d like to think it was a dark and stormy one), I was leafing through a collection of the cartoons of the late and deeply-lamented Charles Addams, who had created his “Addams Family” in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. And my eyes lit on one of my favorites: a 1947 image of Morticia decorating the family’s long-dead pine Christmas tree with little skeletons, snakes, ghosts, coffins and even a vulture as a tree-topper. Thought I: What a wonderful idea for All Hallows Eve (or Samhain, pronounced Sow-en, as the ancient Celts called it). It was the work of a moment in the days before Hallowe’en that year to find a dead tree branch, plant it in a crockery pot filled with earth (native soil, of course) and decorate it with cardboard jack-o-lanterns, black cats, haunted houses and even a “Lurch” mask as a homage to the Addams Family. It was the first Hallowe’en Tree, and I may even have called it that.

But even if I didn’t, the next year Ray Bradbury settled the issue when his book for young people, The Hallowe’en Tree, was published by Knopf. Now, the Hallowe’en Tree had a real physical existence and even a name supplied by the most beloved author ever to celebrate the holiday. What Dickens is to Christmas, Bradbury is to Hallowe’en. And that was the icing on the soul-cake. I determined that no matter what I did in life or where I ended up, I’d have a Hallowe’en Tree every year. And so I have.

In the 1973 October issue of St. Louis magazine, I even wrote about the Tree. In what was nominally a history of the holiday, I pretended that the Hallowe’en Tree was an ancient tradition in an effort to convince anyone who read the article to set up his or her own Tree. I’m not sure how well it worked. But a few years later, I naively tried to interest the Hallmark people in the idea, arguing in my letter to them that they could produce Hallowe’en ornaments and tap a fresh new market with fresh new products. What I didn’t know is that one can’t copyright or patent an idea. I never heard from Hallmark, but the very next year, small cardboard Hallowe’en Trees began to appear in their stores hung with—you guessed it—Hallowe’en ornaments.

Now that the idea was out there—and some ten years or so after I’d set up my first Tree—novelty stores, gift shops and catalogues began, by slow degrees, to feature table-top sized versions of twisted wire or cast resin to simulate ghostly, leafless trees, decorated with miniature pumpkins, witches and goblins. But this slick, “crafty” merchandise missed the whole point. The Hallowe’en Tree is properly an actual dead branch, which costs nothing and embodies the spirit of season. (By the bye, never cut a live branch from a living tree; the tree won’t like it, and, of course, your Hallowe’en Tree ought to be dead!)

In the meantime, my own Hallowe’en Trees were become larger and more elaborate. In the weeks before the holiday, my wife and I went out looking for just that right dead tree branch, best obtained in some excellently spooky place. Once I even had to strap the Tree to the top of my car just as Christmas tree hunters do. Lights were eventually added, lights in appropriately autumnal colors, mostly orange which looked wonderfully seasonal against the dark, dead limb that formed the basis for the Tree. And, of course, every time I came across a perfectly grisly artifact that might hang from the Tree, I bought it. Today I have so many ornaments that most remain in storage, and we decorate the Tree just with our favorites.

In the year 2000, I retired from teaching and moved to Connecticut, where I live in a renovated 1881 factory building and sail my little boat Goblin on Long Island Sound. I’ve had a fine career in academia, I’ve edited or written half a dozen books—one about that master horror writer H. P. Lovecraft and others about Sherlock Holmes (including two adult mysteries, The War of the Worlds Mystery and The Twentieth Century Limited Mystery). But my love affair with Hallowe’en and the Hallowe’en Tree has only deepened. The fact that in 2011 my Hallowe’en Tree will reach its 40th birthday is proof that, properly nurtured, the child in all of us can live a long and healthy life.

And for whatever accomplishments I’ve achieved along the way, the development of what has now become an October icon ranks equally with the rest. I’ve long said—and only half jokingly—that if I have an epitaph, it ought to read: Philip A. Shreffler—Inventor of the Hallowe’en Tree.

First Hallowe’en Tree 1971
First Hallowe'en Tree 1971

Hallowe’en Tree 2002
Hallowe'en Tree 2002

Hallowe’en Tree mid-80s
Hallowe'en Tree mid-80s

Sometimes, it’s unlighted
Unlighted Hallowe'en Tree

Sometimes, the Tree features lights
Lighted Halloween Tree

Posted on September 7th, 2010 in
Site News by admin

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