Michael Dawe: Military balls were once a highlight of Halloween

Another Halloween is rapidly approaching.

It is one of the most popular of the annual celebrations. While door-to-door trick-or-treating by young children has become less common over the past few years, more and more people seem to be decorating their homes and their yards for the evening.

Dressing up in costume remains as popular as ever, as are social get-togethers, with all kinds of food and drink to share.

Halloween is a very old celebration, with some of the traditions dating back to the ancient Celtic rituals and festivities.

Originally, it marked the start of the Celtic new year. Later, there were strong Christian influences. The night became connected with commemorations of All Hallows Eve (the origin of the name Halloween) and All Saints Day Nov. 1. All Saints Day is still a public holiday in parts of Europe.

Halloween celebrations in Red Deer became infrequent with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The community focused on the war effort and little was done to mark such “frivolous” occasions as Halloween. Moreover, the frights of a typical Halloween celebration paled in comparison to the real-life horrors that were taking place in the trenches of the Western Front overseas.

Halloween 100 years ago in 1919 was a muted affair. The winter had turned very cold with temperatures plunging to nearly -25 C. Few people were interested in venturing out for festivities, trick-or-treating and/or Halloween pranks.

In 1920, Halloween fell on a Sunday. Many people felt it was inappropriate to have a pagan celebration on the Sabbath.

The Order of the Eastern Star did organize a Halloween social on Friday, Oct. 29. Proceeds from the event were contributed to a fund for a proposed community war memorial.

Halloween activity finally picked up in 1921. The 78 Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery militia unit, had been organized in Red Deer. While the battery had initially used the old Empress Theatre on 51st Street as a drill hall, by 1921, it had shifted to the armouries on 49th Street (now the Red Deer Children’s Library).

The battery, under the command of Maj. R.C. Lister, decided to organize its first big social event and to have a military ball on Halloween night. There was considerable excitement in the community at the chance to celebrate Halloween with the dashing young men of the battery.

The event was a great success. Festivities went on until 2 a.m., even though it was a Monday night.

The Capitol Theatre Orchestra from Calgary was asked to play several encores. After the dancing was over, the ladies auxiliary of the Great War Veterans Association served up large quantities of food and other refreshments.

There was one glitch to the evening. When people finally went to leave, they found the exit doors had been blocked by a pile of piano boxes, with A.G. Bullock’s dray wagon as a reinforcement.

A quick reminder from the officers, that short rations for the next few days might be imposed, helped to encourage the young artillerymen to quickly clear all of the obstacles.

The 78 Battery Halloween Ball had been so popular it became an annual event. People flocked to the armouries to take in the elaborate decorations, pageantry, costumes and fun.

Despite the $1 admission (a fair bit of money in those days), the Halloween balls were sold-out events. People also came from nearby communities such as Lacombe, Innisfail and Sylvan Lake to take in the festivities.

In 1924, Red Deer’s other militia unit, D Company (31 Battalion) of the 1 Alberta Regiment, joined in the organization of the Halloween ball. However, in 1925, D Company was transferred out of Red Deer. The 78 Battery again became the sole organizer of the annual Halloween festivity.

The battery continued to put a lot of effort into its annual Halloween celebration. One special feature added was the attaching of spotlights onto field machine guns to light up the hall.

Halloween in 1926 fell on a Sunday. As had happened in 1920, there were no celebrations held that night. That included the annual 78 Battery Military Ball.

The event did not return in 1927. The Red Deer Rotary Club organized a Halloween social for the women who worked in the local businesses and offices.

The militia was already hampered by a reduction in government funding. The local officers decided not to try and compete with the new Rotary social. The tradition of the Halloween night military ball came to an end.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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