The Origins of 25 Fall Traditions
If your fall bucket list includes carving jack-o’-lanterns, sipping apple cider, and toasting s’mores over a bonfire, you’re in good company. But when you stop to think about it, many of our autumnal traditions—like scooping out pumpkin guts, asking strangers for sugar, and wandering aimlessly through cornfields—are pretty bizarre. Here are the reasons behind some of our favorite fall pastimes.
This suds-filled celebration, which starts the third weekend of September and ends the first Sunday in October, was created to commemorate the wedding of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. Citizens celebrated again the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The party grew as the years passed—and by 1896, the beer stands had given way to beer tents.
2. Corn Mazes
Wandering through a confusing crop configuration is a relatively recent tradition. The first corn maze was created in 1993 at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Its creator, Don Frantz, has also been responsible for producing Super Bowl halftime shows and Broadway musicals like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
3. Election Day
When Americans first started voting, they had a 34-day period in which to get it done—but when Congress eventually designated a specific Election Day in 1845, they did so with farmers in mind. Many people had to travel up to a day to reach their voting locations, so Congress had to keep a two-day window open. Weekends were out because of church, and Wednesdays were no good because many farmers went to market that day. Tuesday basically won by default. We also have farmers to thank for the month in which we vote—November was post-harvest, but pre-snow.
Several colleges claim to have held the first homecoming, but whether it was the University of Missouri, Baylor, or the University of Illinois, the tradition dates from the early 1900s and was invented to encourage alumni to come back to visit (presumably infusing the community with cash from their newfound paychecks).
Going door-to-door for food on specific holidays dates at least back to the Middle Ages. It became popular in the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s, but had to be put on hold during WWII due to the sugar rations. When the war was over, the practice returned with a vengeance. UNICEF latched on to the tradition in 1950, and “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” has since raised more than $180 million.
6. Beggar’s Night
Believing that holding activities on Halloween night increases the chance of vandalism and mischief, some communities choose to hold their annual trick-or-treat night on nearby dates in October instead. One of the first cities to adapt "Beggar’s Night" was Des Moines, Iowa, which switched to an alternative date after a rash of petty crime in 1938.
7. Apple Bobbing
Trying to grab a Red Delicious with your teeth wasn’t always an autumn tradition. It was once a British courting ritual, where each apple was assigned the name of an eligible bachelor, and each woman would try to grab the apple representing the man she was interested in. (Cringe.) Getting it on the first try meant a "happily ever after" ending. Snagging the apple on the second attempt meant the couple would get together, but their love wouldn’t last. And three tries was a no-go. Though the game waned in popularity during the 1800s, a version of it was revived at the end of the century by Americans remembering their cultural roots.
8. Pumpkin Spice
As you might have suspected, Starbucks gets the credit for making people lose their minds over the blend of common household spices—after all, “pumpkin spice” is really just a combination of spices found in autumn fare like pumpkin pie and apple cider. Mixing flavors such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and mace is certainly nothing new. But in 2003, the Seattle-based coffee company did a heck of a job marketing their new Pumpkin Spice Latte, and ever since then, consumers have clamored to buy anything with the magic label.
9. The World Series
In 1901 and 1902, baseball’s American League and National League were bitter rivals, stealing each other’s players and even taking the beef to the off-season. Things had mostly settled down by 1903, and to bury the hatchet, the leagues decided to face off in a friendly competition. The Boston Americans beat the Pittsburg (that’s not a typo—there was no h at the time) Pirates, but by 1904, the rivalry had reared its ugly head again. John McGraw, the manager of the New York Giants, the National League champs, refused to let his team play against the American League Boston Americans, and the 1904 World Series was canceled.
10. Haunted Houses
The idea of an attraction designed specifically to creep people out has been around since 19th-century London, when Madame Tussaud exhibited eerily accurate wax replicas of famous French people getting their heads lopped off by the guillotine. But walkthroughs of macabre mansions filled with all manner of spooks and scares was first popularized in 1969: "A lot of the professional haunters will point to one thing, and that's Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. It's the start of the haunted attraction industry," Lisa Morton, the author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, told Smithsonian Magazine. Within a few years, copies had popped up all over the country.
As many great ideas do, Movember started in a pub. In 1999, a group of guys in Adelaide, South Australia, came up with the idea to raise money and awareness for charities by growing their moustaches out for a month. The idea quickly caught on, and by 2003, other organizations had adopted the practice. Since then, the Movember Foundation has raised more than $863 million for men’s health causes such as testicular cancer, prostate cancer, mental health, and suicide prevention.
12. Black Friday
If getting up in the middle of the night to fight crowds and snag deals on electronics and cookware is your idea of a good time, thank the good people of Philadelphia. Philly police used the term Black Friday to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, when the city would be awash with rowdy fans attending the Army-Navy football game. Local retailers took advantage of the crowds by having sales and calling the day "Big Friday," but the police term for it stuck. By the 1980s, the discounts and super sales started creeping across the nation.
We can’t point to a single inventor of the s’more, but the concept of melting the gooey concoctions over a campfire dates to at least 1927, when a recipe for "Some mores" was published in a handbook called Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts. The delicious combination of chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker was nothing new—the Mallomar was invented in 1913—but there’s something to be said for the smokiness and warmth that come from the fire.
14. Candy Corn
Love it or hate it, candy corn is here to stay. Invented in the 1880s by George Renninger, a candymaker at the Wunderle Candy Company, the tricolor treat was originally called "Chicken Feed" when the Goelitz Candy Company brought it to the masses by the end of that century.
15. Guy Fawkes Night
After Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot to blow up British Parliament was foiled in 1605, the government declared November 5 a day to celebrate. Even now, more than 400 years later, November 5 is earmarked for fireworks and large bonfires where effigies of Fawkes are burned.
Building giant fires for fun instead of necessity started as a Fourth of July tradition, when towns in New England used to compete to see who could build the tallest pile of flaming debris. Fall bonfires were also a custom, in part because many of the colonists weren't that far removed from participation in Guy Fawkes Night. George Washington hated the tradition due to its anti-Catholic sentiment—another byproduct of the association with Guy Fawkes—calling it a "ridiculous and childish custom" in 1775.
There are a few different theories as to where and when people first gathered to break bread before watching the pigskin get tossed around. The first is that it happened at the very first college football game in 1869, when Princeton played Rutgers. People sat at the "tail end" of their horses to eat and drink. We can also fast-forward to 1904, when people started traveling to games by train. Hungry after a long journey by rail, famished fans brought pre-game snacks to enjoy before kickoff.
Finally, there’s the Green Bay Packers theory, which jibes most with how we tailgate today: Starting in 1919, fans backed their trucks up right to the edge of the field to serve as makeshift bleachers—and, of course, they noshed as they watched.
Every November, thousands of writers vow to spend the month hunkering down and finally finishing that novel that’s been bouncing around in their brains. The phenomenon, known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is the brainchild of Chris Baty. In 1999, Baty and 21 of his friends vowed to get 50,000 words down on paper during the month of November. Only six of them succeeded. But word spread, and the next year, 140 people participated. The third year, they surpassed 1000 writers. The website notes that there are 798,161 active writers and 367,913 completed novels.
19. Carving Jack-O’-Lanterns
Why do we carve pumpkins? The short answer: Because it’s better than carving turnips.
The long answer: As far back as the 1500s, Irish people told a story about Stingy Jack, a blacksmith who made a deal with the Devil to never claim his soul—but when he died, God wouldn’t let him into Heaven, either. So Jack was doomed to walk the Earth for all eternity, with only a burning coal to light his way—which he carried in a turnip he had carved out. He roams the world to this day as "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack-O’-Lantern." Irish immigrants eventually brought the tale to the U.S., as well as the related tradition of turnip-carving. Since pumpkins were plentiful in the U.S. and allowed more room for candles, they quickly became the veggie of choice.
20. Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys Football on Thanksgiving
The Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game since 1934, when the team moved to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio. To get the city excited about the franchise—the second in Detroit—the owner came up with the idea of having a game on Thanksgiving. Because he was well connected, the owner managed to convince NBC to broadcast the game on 94 stations across the U.S. It worked: The Lions filled the stadium to capacity and had to turn fans away at the gate.
When the Dallas Cowboys picked up on the marketing scheme in 1966, fans broke the attendance record. Both teams have upheld the Turkey Day tradition nearly every year since.
21. Turkey Pardon
Speaking of Turkey Day, the President of the United States has the distinct honor of issuing pardons to a pair of birds every year. The tradition may date back to Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have pardoned a turkey named Jack that his son had befriended. But no real documentation for the turkey pardon exists until John F. Kennedy, who let a turkey given to him by the National Turkey Federation roam free.
22. Buy-Nothing Day
If Black Friday isn’t your thing, you can take the opposite tack and participate in Buy Nothing Day, where consumers are challenged to—you guessed it—buy nothing for 24 hours. Founded by artist Ted Dave, the first BND took place in Canada in 1992. In 1997, it was changed to directly counteract the ever-growing madness of Black Friday in the U.S.
23. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Actually, when the spectacle debuted in 1924, it was the Macy’s Christmas Parade, and was mainly meant to create publicity for the expansion of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store, which would now cover an entire city block and became the self-proclaimed "World’s Largest Store." The parade was such a hit that they decided to make it an annual event, switching to a Thanksgiving Day celebration in 1927.
24. New Fall TV
Autumn’s arrival also means new seasons of your favorite network TV shows. That’s because New York-based radio productions used to shut down for the summer so industry folks could escape to the Catskills or Cape Cod for refuge from the summer heat wave. When many radio stars made the switch to TV, the tradition continued. It works out for the best—most people tend to watch less TV in the summer anyway.
25. Punkin Chunkin
Sick of all things pumpkin? Chuck them! The World Championship Punkin Chunkin Contest in Bridgeville, Delaware, claims it’s the oldest and largest event of its kind, with the first one taking place in 1986. It's said that Delawarean Bill Thompson invented the strange sport, which started out as a small group and grew when a local radio station became interested in the squashed squash. These days, thousands of spectators show up to watch contestants pitch pumpkins using trebuchets, catapults, centrifugal machines, and other contraptions.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.