Monday, September 28, 2020

Halloween in Massachusetts

October is right around the corner, and many have already started putting up their spooky decorations in celebration of Halloween! However, Halloween was not always a major holiday, especially in New England.

Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival Samhain. This festival celebrated the Celtic new year, which took place on November 1, and marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. For the Celts, this line, between the life-giving harvest and the cold of winter, marked a boundary between life and death itself. They believed that on October 31st, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead were blurred and that the dead returned to earth at this time, causing ruckus like destroying crops. To avoid this mayhem, the Celts would build large sacred bonfires where they burned offerings to the Celtic gods. They would also wear costumes to distract or confuse the spirits trying to cause trouble. Celts also carved turnips with hideous faces to ward off evil spirits, a precursor of the modern Jack O’ Lantern.

Cover of The Item, a Dorchester High School
newspaper, featuring iconic harvest and
Halloween imagery (November 1920).
Courtesy of the Boston City Archives.

By the early 8th century, the Roman Empire had long since conquered the Celts and had converted to Christianity themselves. Pope Gregory III attempted to transform old pagan holidays into Christian holidays, and therefore declared November 1 to be All Saints Day, which is still celebrated by Catholics today. The day before All Saints Day was called All Hallows Eve, the eve of the holy day, and slowly became “Halloween.”

It is possible that some of the early European colonists in Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay Colony knew about Halloween, but they did not celebrate it. Certainly, they would not have celebrated a “pagan” holiday like Samhain and their schism with the Church of England would have discouraged them from celebrating All Saints Day. However, in southern American colonies like Maryland, some Halloween traditions were performed by Scotch Irish settlers, such as “guising” or wearing costumes on October 31st. 

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem,  Massachusetts

But the traditions of Samhaim were not completely lost. As European and Native American beliefs and customs began to mesh together, New England settlers began to celebrate the end of harvest just like the ancient Celts, with dancing, singing, telling stories of the dead, and perhaps (most likely secretly) telling their neighbors’ fortunes. Autumn festivals like these evolved into parties where costumes, pranks, and ghost stories were commonplace as early as the mid-1800’s. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) remembered the “wild, ugly faces we carved” into pumpkins as a boy, “glaring out through the dark with a candle within!” in his poem “The Pumpkin.” Stories like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” during which a shattered pumpkin is found next to Ichabod Crane’s hat after his encounter with the headless Horseman, popularized not only the carving of pumpkins, but also the smashing of pumpkins by mischievous youths – all in the name of Halloween.

 As more and more Irish immigrants arrived in Massachusetts, the celebration of All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day became more widespread. The carved pumpkins of New England harvest festivals were merged with the Irish tradition of Jack O’ Lanterns, and Halloween became a popular community-centered holiday where neighbors would come together to have parties, dress in costumes, and make foods synonymous with Fall. Community leaders cautioned against vandalism and indulging in the frightening or gruesome parts of the holiday, which secularized Halloween and removed many of the superstitious and religious overtones of Samhaim or All Hallows Eve. Trick or treating, as the name suggests, may have also began around the 1920’s as a way to curb vandalism by promising children a treat of sweets in order to spare a “trick” later in the night.

A 1902 Dance card for Halloween dance,
Sarah (Sallie) M. Field, Abbot Academy. Courtesy of
Phillips Academy Andover Archives and Special Collections.

Today, Halloween is extremely popular, and Massachusetts history, architecture, and literature has had a tremendous impact on the modern imagery of American Halloween. New England writers from Washington Irving to Stephen King have created iconic horror characters, and historical events like the Salem Witch Trials are so synonymous with Halloween tradition that thousands of tourists visit Salem every year in October. Some theorists draw a direct line between the black cat image popular at Halloween and Pilgrims shunning witchcraft in the Plymouth Colony. 

Postcard circa 1919 courtesy of
Historic New England

Halloween 2020 may look a little different this year, but the people of Massachusetts will certainly find a way to celebrate one of their favorite holidays! For more about anything spooky in Massachusetts, check out our blog posts on graveyards and burial grounds, the rise of spiritualism, the Witches of Dogtown, and an entire exhibit on the Legends and Lore of Massachusetts.

Further Reading: 

Exhibit on Halloween by the Massachusetts Office of the Secretary of State:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff