Lovey-dovey long before spooky: Historian shares the romanticism of Halloween in Knoxville

Positively Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — What do the scary symbols of Halloween have to do with hearts? You might be shocked to learn Halloween in Knoxville began as a romantic holiday with parties that might be considered an early form of “The Bachelorette.”

We sat down with respected writer Jack Neely for a positive spin on this spooky day.

Long before trick-or-treating, before the celebration of ghouls and goblins, Halloween had a whole different meaning in Knoxville.

Writer and historian Jack Neely has written a dozen books on the rich history of our area, and shared with us what he has been able to find out about Halloween’s beginnings here.

“It was kind of a romantic holiday,” Neely said, “and this was all secret. You weren’t supposed to tell any boys about this. The purpose of the Halloween party was to find out who you were going to marry, so these were girls ages 14 – 22 or so, (they) would come together and they would have these parties.”

Neely talked about one rather mystical game the girls would play.

“You’d walk down the steps backwards with a mirror in your hand. I wouldn’t recommend that, but the idea was in certain circumstances, you’d look in the mirror and you would see the face of your intended, the face of the person you’re going to marry, or, you might see a skull which meant that you were fated to die without marrying,” Neely said.

“Maybe they were tongue-in-cheek about it, maybe more serious, I don’t know, especially some of the wealthier families like the Woodruff family on Cumberland Avenue. Their carriage house is still standing near the old library.”

By the 1920s, there were more co-ed Halloween parties in Knoxville.

And get this: Neely says it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that kids started trick-or-treating, perhaps thanks to a movie classic.

“I can’t help but think people saw this movie, ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’ a very popular movie in 1944 and said, ‘gosh, why don’t we do something for Halloween? Let the kids out, get them dressed up?'”

Neely says Halloween was brought to Knoxville when hundreds of people came from Ireland to work the railroad here, bringing with them traditions of Halloween and the first Catholic church here: Immaculate Conception.

View the full interview with Jack Neely below:

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