Anoka’s huge Halloween festival returns to its roots amid pandemic

How the city plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary amid COVID-19

Anoka Halloween parade
Parade watchers, many in their own costumes, line Main Street during the annual Halloween parade Oct. 28, 2011, in Anoka, Minn., which claims to be the "Halloween Capital of the World."
Jim Mone | AP 2011

Halloween in Anoka has always been nostalgic for John Jost. He remembers being in the city’s kiddie parade, grabbing a candy bag at his elementary school, dressing up in costume and collecting the annual Anoka Halloween buttons.

“Halloween time is a big deal in Anoka. It’s ingrained to the experience of being an Anokan,” said Jost, 42, the chair of this year’s celebration.

He still expects it to be fun in 2020 — the 100th anniversary of Anoka’s self-proclaimed status as “Halloween Capital of the World.” COVID-19, though, will make it an Allhallows Eve like no other.

Worries about community spread of the coronavirus and other concerns forced Halloween festival leaders to rethink this year’s events. At one point, there was talk of canceling the celebration, which has only happened twice, both times during World War II.

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But festival leaders have a plan they believe will let them stage events safely, within state and federal pandemic guidance.

“The citizens of Anoka certainly will experience a different version of it this year,” Jost said. “We’re making modifications to make it COVID-safe so that our festival can continue,” he added. “We definitely want the word out that Anoka Halloween has not been canceled.”

Back to the basics

The city's first celebration, dating back to 1920, was intended to distract Anoka’s youth from pulling off Halloween pranks. It centered around a large bonfire and parade with nearly 1,000 attendees, along with the ringing of church bells and whistles at 7:30 p.m. on Halloween. 

The festival has grown dramatically since then. In recent years, the city has hosted three Halloween parades. The largest, Anoka’s Grande Day Parade, regularly draws crowds upwards of 60,000, tripling the city’s population in size. 

Given the concerns around COVID-19, event leaders this year are returning to the roots of the holiday celebration, adjusting event schedules to adhere to state guidelines, with most activities taking place outside with headcount limits. 

Instead of gathering along Main Street this year, residents and guests will drive past each of the floats.  

The city also plans to bring back the ringing of the bells, dating back to the city’s first Halloween celebration. In another nod to the past, residents will hear sirens and church bells at 7:30 p.m. on Halloween.

“This event is nice because you can step outside of your home or open a window and listen to the actual anniversary a hundred years later,” said Jost. 

‘Community that likes to have fun’

Jost has spent the last four years collecting and compiling information for Anoka Halloween’s latest project, a coffee table book detailing the history and highlights of the city’s historic celebrations. The publication features stories from residents, complete with over 300 pictures across 160 pages. 

Anoka Halloween Inc., the group that organizes the celebrations, spends months organizing the festival. Plans for the 100-year celebration were several years in the making. 

Despite the difficulties of navigating the celebration through a pandemic, the adversity has brought out resilience in the community, said Liz McFarland, this year’s Anoka Halloween Inc. president.

“Even though we can’t participate in all the things we love to do, it’s walking down memory lane on years past,” McFarland said. 

“We’re celebrating a hundred years because of the residents, the community, the police, the city,” she said. “We’re a tight knit community that likes to have fun and likes to celebrate.”