Halloween at Calvin: From 1958 riots to 2021 rollerblade parties

For many, Oct. 31 is when Halloween or All-Hallows-Eve is celebrated. For the Calvin community, Reformation Day has been the focus of the date. Despite this duality – or maybe because of it – Calvin has developed ambiguous traditions over the years. From innocent dorm events to riots and trials, Calvin students over the years have celebrated Halloween with heavy enthusiasm and flighty creativity as weary young souls seeking a break from the horror of deadlines kicking in.

  A Reformed pagan holiday

At its roots, Halloween is pagan. Traditions trace its origins back to Samhain, a Gaelic feast day marking the end of the harvest season and set aside for commemorating the dead. It is conjectured that the early church Christianized the pagan festival, redesignating Nov. 1 as All Hallows’ Day and Oct. 31 as All Hallows’ Eve, or Allhalloween. While the Americanized version of Halloween is more secular and commercial than either the pagan or the Christian tradition, many Christians still disapprove of Halloween activities, believing that the holiday’s theme of “spookiness” tends towards the Satanic.  

In the spirit of Calvin’s Christian Reformed tradition, many would prefer to celebrate Reformation Day on Oct. 31: the day Martin Luther shook the gates of the Catholic church with his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany. 

According to Professor Karin Maag, director of the Meeter Center, the Meeter Center holds Reformation Day events annually. Some past events include a faculty panel on “What the Reformation means for Me” in 2017, as well as a lecture on English women reformers and a giveaway of Reformation-themed cookies in 2019. This year, Maag told Chimes, there will be an open house focusing on the Puritans and an afternoon of English Reformation-era poetry reading with tea and scones.

 The Friday Night Riots: Halloween, 1958

 But what about the rest of Calvin? According to John Witte, dean of students, Calvin has no “outright ban” on Halloween events, but is more likely to officially recognize the day as Reformation Day in community events.

Looking back all the way to 1958, however, an episode in Calvin’s history of Halloween did once result in a temporary ban on the spooky festivities. According to Phil Erffmeyer, who graduated with the class of 1961, a student riot broke out on Oct. 31, 1958, when Calvin was still a single block of buildings on Franklin Street. According to a Chimes article published the following week, a crowd of approximately 500 people gathered to watch “relatively few persons create general disorder,” resulting in what the article called “the Friday Night Riots.”

The following year, Calvin banned gatherings of more than two people on the night of Oct. 31 on campus, in an attempt to prevent another riot

Chimes Nov. 7, 1958 edition reporting the Friday Night Riots incident. Photo courtesy William Katerberg.

 “I don’t know what incited them to start doing all this crazy stuff.” Erffmeyer said. He told Chimes he remembered the students surrounding passing cars and attempting to overturn them by shaking them to and fro. When police showed up, people in the crowd hurled vegetables, apples and eggs at them. The damages that night were not severe, with one scratched Cadillac and some broken windows in campus buildings, but eight students were arrested, seven fined by the Grand Rapids Police Court and 12 students later disciplined by Calvin. 

The following year, Calvin banned gatherings of more than two people on the night of Oct. 31 on campus, in an attempt to prevent another riot.

Fortunately, that level of rowdiness was a one-off, and Calvin hasn’t instituted a ban on Halloween gatherings since. Aside from that one time in 1958, Calvin students have directed their Halloween energy and creativity over the years into much more neighborly, much less mischievous and much more painless (or more good-natured) activities.

Since 1994: Light in the Night

Nothing has been more neighborly, perhaps, than the only officially Calvin-sponsored Halloween event: Light in the Night. The event is known as a night where students welcome children and parents from nearby neighborhoods into the Knollcrest East apartments on the night of Oct. 31 for trick-or-treating.

Hannah Brenton, KE’s area coordinator, said that the event has had a long history that began in 1994. Every year, KE residents would work hard to decorate each apartment building according to a theme. Over the years, apartments turned into “castles,” “jungles,” “Candyland,” or “Coco” and “Toy Story” as children in costumes wandered around in a night of wonderment. In exchange, each child was asked to bring and donate one canned good for the poor. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Light in the Night did not happen in 2020 and will be replaced by an outdoor “trunk-or-treating” event this year.

Light in the Night featured in Chimes over the years. Photo by Timothy Lin.

The holiday spirit: ketchup costumes and disco balls

Across the Beltline on the west side campus, students in the dorms have also celebrated the holiday with ingenious activities, dazzling their floors with Halloween-themed artistry through both costumes and floor decor.

Paula Tangsirisatian, the current KHvR graduate assistant and a past Veenstra resident assistant, recalled that Halloween at Calvin was always an opportune space for the social events team, residence hall executive team or just people on the floors to bring out ideas and put together something fun. These activities could be an elaborate and dedicated event or a casual activity people have fun with. 

Everyone was mostly in ‘not school appropriate outfits’ and the air teemed with hormones

Students make use of door space for the Halloween spirit. Photo by Skylar Kenneally.

Last year, all the Veenstra residents organized a “reverse” trick or treat where they went around distributing candy instead of collecting, according to Tangsirisatian  The event then wrapped up in the dorm basement with a catwalk costume contest, in a medley of ninja turtles, ducks, a lemonade man, a pink gorilla and other students in costumes. The same year, Tangsirisatian told Chimes, the girls of third Veenstra also played “Spooktober,” a game in which points were awarded for successfully scaring people on the floor. “Think ‘tag’ but the ‘it’ in tag is everyone and everyone is trying to catch or ‘scare’ each other,” Tangsirisatian said.

Witte, who graduated with the class of 1991, recalled that the boys of third Bolt had a tradition of creating a haunted house for Halloween. “It probably crossed the line into the ghostly and gory side of Halloween, but was memorable for the guys who wasted a lot of time setting it up,” Witte said. Costume dance parties were also a hit back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, according to Witte.

For the more adventurous and the bold, Calvin students have also traditionally gathered at a roller-skating rink downtown on Halloween night, in a space for “Calvin people to party in a not-so-Calvin way,” in the words of Kate DeHaan, a senior majoring in writing and linguistics. “A disco ball cast a glittering light on the college students shuffling in circles. Everyone was mostly in ‘not school appropriate outfits’ and the air teemed with hormones,” DeHaan recalls.

Each year the Calvin adventure club also holds a Halloween party at the rock wall, with students in costume climbing to grab candy from the holds followed by and afterwards a game of twister on the wall itself. DeHaan said that she and her friend won the costume contest one year dressed as Ryan Rooks and Jamie Skillen: “the dynamic duo,” she said. 

If you swipe into the dining halls during Halloween weekend, you will also be greeted by a Halloween spirit rivaling that of the students in enthusiasm and flair. Besides decking the halls with spooky and seasonal decorations, the dining hall supervisors organize a pumpkin carving event for student employees every year.

Every year, dining hall student workers dress up for Halloween at Knollcrest. Photo by Elizabeth Hooten.

Elizabeth Hooten, Knollcrest’s service supervisor, said that each time the dining halls are adorned with the carved pumpkins, the many international students who work at the dining halls get a memorable first experience of Halloween. During Halloween weekend, student employees are also encouraged to wear their costumes to work, adding to the holiday spirit as Sith lords, Dwight Schrutes and walking ketchup bottles serve the food and wipe the tables in place of the usual employee in black uniform. 

The Halloween hype varies among students

The individual Calvin student’s experience of Halloween can always be different, whether it’s Reformation Day, not-so-Calvin Halloween parties or just staying in the room to study. Philosophy professor Rebecca DeYoung, for example, remembered that her studies and cross-country runs kept her from staying up late and having fun for Halloween when she was at Calvin. Similarly, professor William Katerberg did not get into the Halloween hype as a Calvin student, although he traced this lack of enthusiasm back to childhood.  

For Skylar Kenneally, a junior hailing from Chicago, Halloween at Calvin has been rather underwhelming compared to the active atmosphere back home. “Halloween’s always been a little weird to me at Calvin,” Kenneally said. Perhaps that’s a sentiment that best sums up the day at this institution. It’s not exactly quiet, not exactly rowdy, with lots of space for students to find their own ways to have fun.