Oral history provides stories connecting families to the past. Use Halloween stories to connect with the playful side of genealogy research.
Halloween is a big deal in our neighborhood.
It’s not unusual to see Halloween decorations slowly making their appearances in September! The weather may still be warm, but it is not unusual to find skeletons sunbathing in kiddie pools in the front yards.
Moving into October and the decorating gets serious. There is currently a 12 foot skeleton across the street from me staring at my office window. He keeps me company. Hmmm….an ancestor, perhaps?
We no longer have children who trick or treat at home, but we do have lots of fun handing out treats – no tricks! – to the neighborhood children. Really, it’s a neighborhood/small town affair. Treats for kids, adults and pets abound.
But, being the family historian and genealogist that I am , I know holidays are a great time to gather stories about the family, community and social history events.
Gathering Social and Oral History Around Halloween
[Warning….I’m about to get up on my soap box.]
You know oral history is important to your family history research. I would go so far as to say oral history is crucial to our research.
As researchers we learn vital clues to family relationships, where family lived, and where they moved to. We can find concrete clues and information, and also clues to the family’s culture.
For example, I lost my great grandfather Abe White of Surry County, NC in the 1920 census record. His wife and three children were enumerated, but he was no where to be found! NOt a trace of him was found.
Until I asked an older aunt about it. She readily shared she knew exactly where he was – working on building highways in Tennessee with her father. It turns out, in the off season of farming, he left the area to earn money doing road construction. Without oral history, Abe would still be lost in 1920.
Beyond factual clues, oral history reveals aspects of an individual’s personality. It enriches the stories of their lives we can share with younger generations.
Never underestimate the power of oral history and a fun story to grab the younger generation’s attention. Let’s just say “flaming cow poop” is an attention getter! (More on that later.)
With the importance of oral history in mind, let talk Halloween!
Halloween Tricks? Or Treats?
I do not just talk about oral history. I actively seek it out. I repeatedly interview family members from my parents to my distant cousins.
No one is too far away in distance or on the family tree not to have a piece of oral history pertaining to my ancestors.
Let me show you what this looks like. For the stories below, I interviewed both of my parents. Their experiences of Halloween as young children differed quite a lot!
The Flaming Cow Poop (Yes, you read that right!)
Growing up in rural 1940’s Halifax County, Virginia, Halloween was more about the tricks than the treats. At least for the boys in the family.
Let’s find out what the young Talbott cousins might have been up to on Halloween.
The Talbott cousins grew up in rural southern Virginia where the family was primarily a farming family. They lived in the community of Cluster Springs, close to South Boston, Va. On Halloween the boys would go out to the pasture and get a cow patty and place it in a grocery sack. (That’s cow poop, just so we are clear.)
They would then place the sack of cow poop on an unsuspecting person’s porch, light the sack on FIRE and knock on the door.
Oh yes, and RUN. The person would open their front door, see a grocery sack on fire…..and, well, stomp the fire out.
Use your imagination on how that went.
Do you want to get your children interested in family history?
You only need three words: Granddad & Cow Poop!
My adult children still laugh at this story.
The Mysterious Rocking Chair
Those Talbott cousins did not stop at cow patty flambes. They had more tricks up their sleeves, too.
The cousins would make a dummy person out of things they found on the farm. They could be quite creative with a pair of old overalls and a bunch of hay.
Most people in the area where they lived had front porches with a rocking chair or two. They would place the dummy in a rocking chair on someone’s front porch. They would then tie a rope around the rocking chair and hide off to the side of the porch.
One person would ring the doorbell and run. When the door opened, one of the boys would pull the rope and rock the chair creating a spooky sight for the homeowner!
Disclaimer: I’ve been assured my father was not the ring leader in any of these tricks, but one of the younger boys following his older cousins. At least that’s his story and he’s sticking to it!
The Sweeter Side of Halloween – The Treats
Let’s move on to a family of girls. Halloween looked a bit different, I can assure you.
Growing up outside of Greensboro, NC, my mother’s family was still in a fairly rural setting. There were only about 4-5 houses of close neighbors and friends on their street.
All the children would dress up and trick or treat at each other’s houses in the more traditional way kids do today.
No real tricks were done.
In this case, it was more about the treats.
The mothers would bake really good treats for the kids – homemade cookies, candy apples – that sort of thing. No store-bought candy there. Since I know the women doing the baking, I know those were some fabulous treats. Every one of them was a fabulous cook in their own right. Treats for the kids was a fun way to showcase their skills.
Connecting Generations Through Halloween Stories
Oral history is fun. It connects generations. It faciliates the interest of younger generations in their families and provides a grounding effect as well.
For my children, flaming cow poop and mysterious rocking chairs provided a connection between my dad and my son. My son would ask for more stories from his grandfather’s youth. (I’m just glad we have no cow pastures near where we lived. I didn’t want him getting any ideas.)
My daughter wants to create some of those Halloween treats she heard about in her own kitchen. She’s particularly interested in culinary history and her own culinary hertiage. She even started a blog about it – The Food Memory Project.
I realize in your search for your ancestors in the traditional genealogy records and in the genealogy databases, it’s easy to overlook collecting oral history. But as we work to grow your family tree, consider why you started in the first place. I bet it was to learn more about your family.
Who they were.
What motivated them to come to America.
Or move west.
Or pursue a career on stage.
Maybe you are even asking yourself if you are like one of your ancestors.
Seek out your family’s oral history. Ask your family members! You might just find a flaming cow poop story in your family!