Although not an official holiday, Halloween seems to mark the beginning of a festive holiday season. When the doorbell rings on October 31, pirates, witches, and goblins appear at most American homes. “Trick” or “treating” is an autumn highlight for children, while Halloween costumes and parties are increasingly popular with adults as well.
Curious minds may want to know where these customs began, and when they arrived in Massachusetts.EndFragment
Stepping Back in TimeThe origins of Halloween are somewhat murky. Most experts agree that they can be traced back to ancient Celtic culture. Today we associate the word “Celtic” with Ireland and parts of Scotland. In ancient times Celtic people lived throughout the British Isles (including present day England.) On the continent of Europe parts of modern day Spain and France were Celtic. In very ancient times there were Celtic people in Eastern Europe.
For ancient Celts, November 1 was New Year’s Day. It was called Samhain (pronounced Sow-in.) On October 31, New Year’s Eve, it was thought that the souls of those who had died the previous year would rise for judgment. That was frightening for some people. If ghosts were roaming that night, spirits might harm the living or try to settle old scores. People began wearing disguises and carrying hollowed out turnips, with a lighted candle, to ward off evil spirits. Bonfires lit the night sky.
During the early days of Christianity the church attempted to convert “pagan” people by “piggy backing” onto their holidays. In the eighth century Pope Gregory declared November 1 to be “All Saints Day,” honoring those who had died and were now in heaven. October 31 - the eve of the holy day - was called “All Hallows Eve,” or “Halloween.” Some people were still afraid of ghosts and older customs persisted. The church encouraged people to dress as saints if they wore costumesEndFragment
Pope Gregory IIIEndFragment
Where did the custom of “trick or treating” begin? There are many theories. People of a certain age remember the “Peter, Paul, and Mary” recording “Soul Cake.” During the Middle Ages “soul cakes” were baked for the poor at Halloween. In exchange, they were expected to pray for the souls of the dead. Roving bands would offer to pray for the dead in exchange for food.EndFragment
Trick or TreatEndFragment
There is also the tradition of vandalism on Halloween (the “trick” element.) Some relate this to “Guy Fawkes Day.” It commemorated the suppression of a plot by Catholic dissidents to blow up the English parliament. Celebrated on November 5 it was called “Pope Night” in colonial Boston. Members of the North and South End gangs fought damaging street battles. Although the connection is not perfectly clear, and “Guy Fawkes Day” seems like a stretch, something about the early evening darkness created problems in many places at that time of year. Halloween was another example.EndFragment
Pope Night in Boston, Library of CongressEndFragment
The legacy of the Roman Empire on Western Civilization is incalculable. Naturally it included a contribution to Halloween customs. The empire extended into modern day Britain. In October the Romans commemorated the goddess “Pomona” whose symbol was an apple. (Pomona was the goddess of fruit and trees.) Halloween customs like bobbing for apples may be traced to Roman influence in ancient Britain.
Bobbing for ApplesEndFragment
Votive candles on All Saints DayEndFragment
An American HolidayEndFragment
Some of these customs had echoes in colonial America, although not in Massachusetts. The Puritans would take a dim view of Halloween and it origins.
It was different in other colonies. Anglican and Lutheran churches observed All Saints Day, as did Maryland’s Catholic population. In the south, “Scotch Irish” settlers sometimes dressed in costumes on Halloween. (These were Scottish settlers who had lived in Northern Ireland.) They called the custom “guising.” – derived from wearing disguises.
The influx of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century brought Halloween closer to modern practice. In County Cork, revelers wore costumes on Halloween and announced their arrival at each house with cow’s horns. Residents expected prosperity if they passed out food or drink. To light the way, “Jack– o’- lanterns” were carved from turnips. In America, Irish immigrants soon discovered that pumpkins were even more effective for this purpose. On October 31, 1884 the Boston Daily Globe took note of Halloween’s Irish origins with an article entitled, “Why Thousands Will Think of Erin Tonight.”
Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia
An Irish ConnectionEndFragment
The American version carved from a punpkin.
The Irish Museum of Country Life displays an early twentieth century “Jack- o’- lantern” carved from a turnip.EndFragment
Into the Twentieth CenturyEndFragment
Background photo by Anthony92931 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
President John F. Kennedy with children Caroline and John Jr. on October 31, 1963.EndFragment
By the twentieth century newspapers and magazines spread Halloween customs nationwide. Groups ranging from Boy and Girl Scout troops to Rotary Clubs promoted Halloween activities. Massachusetts was now ahead of the curve. By the 1920’s “trick or treaters” were spotted in Wellesley. After World War II, the “baby boom” increased marketing to families with young children. Commercially made costumes and Halloween decorations added another dimension to the celebration.
“Witches, and Goblins, and Jack-o’-lanterns bright,
Creep through the town on a cold October night...”
1950’s Halloween song
In modern day Salem, Halloween is a serious event and major boost to the economy. The obvious connection is the association of witches with both Salem and Halloween. There is some irony since, as explained, Halloween was not the kind of event that appealed to Massachusetts Puritans.
The Salem witch trials were serious events with long-term historical impact. Visitors to the Commonwealth Museum can take a test to determine if they would have been considered a witch in 1692 Salem. They can also see documents associated with the trials.EndFragment
Salem – Halloween Capital
Background photo by Fletcher6 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Share Halloween MemoriesIf parents or teachers would like to share Halloween photos, including parties, carved pumpkins, and “trick or treaters” we will post them on the Commonwealth Museum facebook page. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org
Read More About Halloween:Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: an American Holiday, an American History, Gretna Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2005. A lively, concise, and comprehensive look at all things "Halloween."
Kelley, Ruth Edna. The Book of Halloween: The Origin and History of Halloween, Originally printed 1919. Reprinted Middletown Delaware, 2015. First published in 1919, a chance to brush up on Halloween related mythology.
Happy Halloween from the Commonwealth Museum Staff!