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Whether or not you’re a fan of the cooler temperatures and changing leaves that arrive with the fall season, it’s likely you enjoy a few time-honored traditions associated with this time of year — from apple picking on a crisp autumn day to rooting for your team at the homecoming game. But have you ever wondered how these customs started or why they’ve become so popular? Even though fall may look a little different this year, these fall favorites are here to stay — here’s a look at some of the best fall traditions celebrated across the U.S. and how they came to be.
Although similar hedge mazes were popular in England during the 1700s, corn mazes surprisingly didn’t become popular in the U.S. until hundreds of years later. In 1993, the first corn maze in the U.S. was built at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. At the time, the corn maze was considered an alternative form of art, although the stunning geometric pattern could only be seen from the sky. Since then it has evolved into a popular fall time recreational activity for kids and adults alike, as well as a way for farms to generate income before the long winter months.
Although leaf peeping on a clear autumn day is perhaps one of the simplest ways to enjoy the beauty of the season, Americans were far from the first to popularize the tradition. Over a thousand years ago, this seasonal activity was once called “hunting leaves” in Japan, dating back as far as A.D. 794. It was around this time when noble Japanese families began to cultivate a strong appreciation for the changing of leaves during autumn. The tradition has spanned centuries and oceans — now it’s certainly one of the first activities that comes to mind when we think of fall.
We all know that Election Day is the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, but do you know why that is? This tradition dates back to the 1800s when many U.S. citizens were rural farmers who needed to travel long distances in order to vote. Since Sundays were for church and Wednesdays were for markets, it was decided that Monday would be for traveling and Tuesday for voting. The month of November was chosen because late autumn was a convenient time for agrarians, who were most often busy planting in the spring and harvesting in the summer and early fall.
For school-aged children, it’s a safe bet that no other fall activity comes close to the joys of trick-or-treating. The tradition has roots in pagan, Celtic, and British history. Halloween evolved from the pagan festival Samhain, and the original act of disguising oneself on All Hallow’s Eve was meant to drive away unwanted spirits. By the time Halloween arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s, it had become a way for disorderly youths to avoid being caught in the midst of pranks. Eventually, trick-or-treating was created as a strategic maneuver to stop the evening’s mayhem, with communities giving away treats to lure pranksters away from their tricks.
Bobbing for Apples
Although bobbing for apples is often associated with Halloween, this game was once used as a way to determine love and fate among British women. Each apple in the barrel represented a potential suitor, and when a woman bit into the floating apple of her choice in a single attempt, it was considered an omen that she would end up with the man she so desired. When the tradition reached the U.S., it became a light-hearted autumn activity, due to the fact that October is high-season for apples.
Since the start of the millennium, holiday shoppers in the U.S. have started to eschew Black Friday’s big crowds and long lines in favor of shopping from home on Cyber Monday. The term for this tradition was coined by Ellen Davis of the National Retail Foundation in 2005 after she noticed a post-Thanksgiving spike in sales. Since Monday was the first day back at the office after Thanksgiving break, she believed people were using the faster internet access at their workplace as a way to tackle their long shopping lists. Since then, Cyber Monday has become a huge hit with online shoppers, hitting a record of $9.4 billion in sales in 2019.
As the culmination of the months-long baseball season, the World Series takes place every October. The tradition began over a century ago when tensions were especially high between two North American baseball leagues, the established National League and the brand new American League. In 1903, Boston (AL) played against Pittsburgh (NL) in a best-of-nine series, with Boston winning five games to three. Today, the series is a best-of-seven matchup, but it still pits the champions from each league against each other every fall.
Thanksgiving is most commonly thought of as a family holiday, but a new tradition called Friendsgiving is rethinking these terms. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a large meal among friends during the Thanksgiving season,” Friendsgiving is a modern tradition that has gained national traction in the past decade. First coined in 2007, the term began to show up in print media by 2009 and national advertising campaigns by 2011. Since then, more friend groups have become accustomed to celebrating this additional holiday in late November.
Although ghoulish, illuminated pumpkins can be found on front stoops across the U.S. in late October, the Halloween practice originated across the pond. According to Irish lore, Stingy Jack was a cunning fellow who outsmarted the Devil so many times, he was not allowed a place in hell. As a result, he wandered the earth with his lantern, a piece of burning coal, and his name was shortened to Jack O’Lantern. In Ireland and Scotland, people honored the tale by carving faces into turnips and potatoes. By the time the practice reached America, pumpkins seemed the most suitable item for carving.
One of the most popular fall traditions in the U.S. also happens to be one of the oldest. Growing and picking apples began as early as 1607, when the Jamestown settlers planted seeds carried across the Atlantic from England. These early varieties of apples were quite bitter, especially when compared to the sweet apples most of us love today, and were grown for one specific purpose — alcoholic cider. Eventually, apple picking grew into a more wholesome activity that’s usually accompanied by sweet treats, like baked apple pies, candied apples, and apple cider doughnuts.
The popular German holiday began in 1810 when the wedding celebration of Crown Prince Ludwig was opened to the public. With time, the anniversary of the wedding became an annual Bavarian festival and is now celebrated for two weeks in Munich every year. Oddly enough, the October festival honors the tapping of Märzen bier, which translates to “March beer,” as the beer is brewed in spring in anticipation of drinking it in autumn. With the boom in craft brewing across the U.S., Americans have adopted Oktoberfest as a way to celebrate the fall season, and more importantly, a convenient excuse to drink beer.
In 1621, it is believed that English settlers in America dined on some form of pumpkin at the first Thanksgiving. Europeans were already familiar with the orange gourds, which explorers brought back from the New World in the 1500s, and used them in pies. By the eighteenth century, pumpkin pie had caught on in America, becoming so popular that a Connecticut town famously postponed the Thanksgiving holiday by one week due to a lack of supplies for pumpkin pie. After canned pumpkin was first introduced in 1929, it became even more ubiquitous at Thanksgiving tables across America.
From small college campuses to big NFL stadiums, tailgating is a way of life for football fans. It is said that the origin of this pre-game gathering started in 1869 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at the first collegiate football game, a match between Rutgers and Princeton. Others claim that tailgating is a trend that began within the Ivy League, with spectators arriving early as a way to obtain a parking spot. Either way, partaking in food, drink, and camaraderie prior to the game turned out to be as popular as you might assume.
Another American tradition with European roots, the first haunted house was created in London by Marie Tussaud during the early nineteenth century, when the famous wax sculptress crafted a series of grotesque, decapitated figures in an exhibit named the “Chamber of Horrors.” During the Great Depression, American parents started to build makeshift haunted houses on Halloween in an effort to distract their children from vandalism. However, it wasn’t until Walt Disney opened Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in the late 1960s that haunted houses became the thrilling holiday tradition it is today.
Pumpkin Spice Lattes
Whether you love them or hate them, Pumpkin Spice Lattes are here to stay — and only seem to arrive earlier each year. In 2003, Starbucks had great success with a winter seasonal drink called the Peppermint Mocha. The following spring, the company’s Seattle headquarters began to scheme a seasonal drink for fall and the Pumpkin Spice Latte was born. Although a pumpkin-flavored latte wasn’t an entirely new idea, Starbucks leveraged its prevalence throughout the country and clever marketing to turn the seasonal drink into a fall staple.
Celebrated at high schools and college campuses alike, homecoming’s origins are up for debate. Both the University of Missouri and Baylor University in Texas claim to be the first school to celebrate homecoming in the early 1900s. Historically, homecoming was scheduled for the first football game of the season, with hordes of alumni returning to their alma mater to watch the game and reunite with old friends. Now, the celebrations are typically accompanied by dances, parades, and voting for homecoming king and queen.
Although fairs have been around since the Middle Ages, it was usually an event with religious undertones. But by the time the concept of fairs reached the U.S. in the early 1800s, they were more focused on agriculture, animal husbandry, and education as a means to gather the community. Many agricultural fairs were hosted in fall as a way to celebrate the harvest. The first American fair was held in 1807 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when a man named Elkanah Watson organized a sheep shearing demonstration. That event eventually turned into the Berkshire County Fair, a large agricultural fair held annually in September.
You may have noticed in recent years that the month of November marks the arrival of more mustachioed gentlemen in our midst. That’s because, in 2007, the Movember movement arrived in the U.S. from Australia. Started as a way to raise awareness for prostate cancer, Movember’s cause has extended to men’s health in general, including mental health and suicide prevention. Men who grow and groom mustaches during the month of November are not only promoting men’s health but also raising funds to support the cause.
Thanksgiving Day Football
Every year, the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys take to their home fields to play a Thanksgiving Day game. Although it used to be customary for high schools and colleges to host football games on the holiday itself, it wasn’t a typical practice for professional teams. However, the Detroit Lions borrowed the idea in 1934 as a marketing ploy to attract more fans. When the Cowboys copied the idea in 1966, they noticed a boost in their popularity as well, and both teams have traditionally played on Thanksgiving ever since.
The cornucopia has become a defining feature of Thanksgiving tables across the country. In Latin, cornucopia translates to “the horn of plenty,” a fitting depiction of the fall season’s copious harvest and the holiday’s theme of gratitude. However, if a traditional cornucopia were to be placed on the Thanksgiving table, it would employ the horn of a goat. That’s because the cornucopia is derived from Greek legend — when Zeus accidentally tore off the horn of his goat caretaker, Amalthea, he promised her the horn would bring her continuous abundance for the rest of time.
Originally, hayrides weren’t a source of amusement, but merely a practical way to get around. Hay is usually harvested during the late summer and early fall, and when the large bales were loaded into the truck, the workers had nowhere left to sit but on top of the hay. Over time, hayrides morphed into an enjoyable family activity, in addition to becoming a source of income for farmers. Haunted hayrides were later introduced to attract more fun-seekers looking for a thrill around the Halloween holiday.
Halloween Pet Costumes
Kids (and many adults) have been dressing up in Halloween costumes for decades, but the silliest — and perhaps cutest — Halloween fad of late is to dress up your dog in costume. In 2019, 29 million people planned to put their pet in a costume for the fall time holiday. What’s the catalyst behind this new trend? Halloween Pet Parades are becoming increasingly popular throughout the U.S., occurring with great fanfare in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and New York City.
If pumpkin pies and pumpkin lattes aren’t enough, pumpkin kayaks are certainly a fun spin on the fall tradition. Every October, the city of Tualatin, Oregon, hosts the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta, in which racers dress up in costume, carve out a giant pumpkin, and then race across Tualatin Lake in their handmade floating vessel. The event is hosted by the city in partnership with the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers Association, which is responsible for growing pumpkins large enough to fit a human. Sixteen years ago, the event began as more of a PR stunt but has since turned into a beloved fall time tradition.
Although crew is a sport that takes place both in the spring and the fall, its biggest draw of the year occurs in October. Thousands of crew athletes meet in Boston to row “head” races — a regatta class that is three miles in length — on the Charles River for the largest rowing event in the country, the Head of the Charles. The event was founded in 1965 when two members of the Cambridge Boat Club hosted a head regatta on their home turf, at the advice of a sculling instructor from Harvard University. Since then spectators and athletes from across the country flock to Boston for the two-day event.
Running a race on Thanksgiving may seem somewhat more modern than other traditions on the list, but the Turkey Trot is actually the oldest continuously run race in the U.S., beating out the Boston Marathon by just one year. The first Turkey Trot was hosted in 1896 by the local YMCA in Buffalo, New York. With only six participants running the Thanksgiving Day race, the original version wasn’t a great success, but it gained a lot of traction in the following years. More than 100 years after this first race, many other cities have followed suit, with more people running in races on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year.