The History of Halloween

by Kristin Harris

     Well, it’s that time of year again here in the Witch City, when tourists from all over the world descend on Salem to celebrate Halloween in its (arguably) capital.  Halloween in itself has taken on a new meaning not only for tourists and tourism in Salem, but for its locals too.  Every year, enthusiasts of all types flock to Salem searching for their own meaning and entertainment on their favorite of holidays.  Of course, there are residents who decry this as a terrible time of year, and joke about hiding in their homes or taking a vacation, only to return when the last feather off of a Jerry’s witch hat has fallen.  But many, if not most of Salem’s residents find this to be an exciting time of year.  The costumes, the tours, the elaborate organization of Haunted Happenings that has in itself become a phenomenon unmatched by any purveyor of haunting (and sometimes haunted) tourism.  It really is hard NOT to get into the spirit as the town bands together to accomplish what seems like an impossible task, leading up to the day when roads are closed down to allow room for the crowd of sometimes 250,000 visitors on Halloween weekend.


     Many often ask the question, “How did we get here,” or, “why Salem, and why Halloween?” Some people, which I’m guessing would include the street preachers who appear on our streets every year to vow that all of us here in Salem will end up way down below in the afterlife (which gives a strikingly eerie modern representation of 1692 mentality) bemoan the holiday, and say that Haunted Happenings is taking away from Salem’s history and making it into a commercial beast that needs its heads promptly muzzled, or removed.  My argument against that as a public historian, tour guide, and scholar of the supernatural is to remind those people of Salem’s history with the supernatural.  There is not one century in our history where questions of the macabre and supernatural have not in some ways been at the center of social development or conversation.  From 1692, when frightened Puritans believed that their loved ones were being plagued by supernatural forces hell bent on destroying their way of life, to the Spiritualist movement which many of Salem’s dignitaries (including Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia) took interested part in.  But that is a conversation for another day.  Today I wish to pay ode to our most beloved holiday here in Salem, and shed a little light on the history of the celebration.  While some people may find this not as important to our collective history in Salem, I would be shaming myself as a public historian to dismiss this piece of popular Salem history and doing a disservice to the many, many years of importance that Haunted Happenings and Halloween have given our city.  And let’s face it, when it comes to Halloween, nobody does it better than Salem.



     Halloween as we know it, comes from the ancient celebration of Samhain, an ancient Irish festival on the Celtic calendar.  The Celts believed that the year was divided into two parts; the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter).  Samhain, or Halloween as we now call it, was the halfway point between the darkness and the light, and the time of year when the Celts believed that the veil between worlds was the thinnest.  Oíche Shamhna (October 31) is Halloween and Lá na Marbh (November 1) is the Day of the Dead, or All Saints Day, when those who have passed away are remembered.

     According to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress, Celts wore costumes to confuse the spirits now roaming our world and to avoid capture.  This idea of confusing spirits so that they would not attack the living is a pervasive part of Irish and English (as well as many others) culture that would find its way into early North American settlements.  There has been evidence of this marked on colonial houses around New England in the form of “witch marks,” said to protect the home against otherworldly creatures wishing to do harm.  Of course, our Puritan predecessors would most certainly not have donned the costumes.

     The reasoning behind why the ancient Celts held this particular time of year as one of reverence and respect for the dead is quite simple; it was the time of harvest, and also the threshold of winter, when crops and plants would wither and die.  Because of this, it was a time that was also associated with human death, when people would be forced to brace themselves for the harsh cold of the winter months.

     By 43A.D., the Roman empire had conquered much of Celtic territory, and Samhain was slowly replaced with the Roman derivative, Feralia.  This was usually a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead.  The second day was to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees.  Pomona’s symbol is the apple, and according to some scholars, the incorporation of this symbol into Samhain may be the reason for the modern tradition of “bobbing for apples.”

     By the 9th century, most ancient practice had been replaced by Christian traditions, Samhain now turning into the feast of All Martyrs Day, which extended from May 13 to November 1.  November 2 would become All Souls Day, a day marked by the Catholic church to honor the dead.

Halloween in America

     Since Puritan and Protestant cultures in the northern colonies of North America expressly forbade most celebrations of Pagan origin (even Christmas for a time), there were not many Puritans running amok in Halloween revelry.  This was found more often in places like Maryland and the Southern colonies. As colonial traditions and superstitions began to mesh with Native American ones from different tribes across the country, our modern sense of Halloween began to emerge.  This was seen first in the form of “play parties,” which were public events held in autumn during which people would gather, share stories of the dead, and read each other’s fortunes. Colonial celebrations also featured the telling of ghost stories and pranking. But Halloween would not reach practice across most of the country until the mid- nineteenth century.

     By 1846, the United States was flooded with immigrants, and during that year in particular, Irish immigrants hoping to escape the great potato famine that was claiming lives all across Ireland.  This is where we see the closest resemblance to our modern version of Halloween.  Melding Irish and English traditions, people began to dress up in costume, and go from house to house demanding refreshments (emulating the spirits that were said to need an offering to sate them in ancient Celtic tradition). If you did not meet the request of the masked person on your doorstep (usually for food or money) you would most likely be pranked or have your home vandalized, where we get the term “trick or treat.”

     In the late 1800’s there was a move to make Halloween a more community-based holiday, and by the 1920’s and 30’s had lost its traditional frightening and grotesque trappings of the older age. Communities held celebrations, parades and social gatherings.  Despite best efforts to curb the previously raucous celebrations of Halloween in earlier times, vandalism was still a problem and found to be frequent on Halloween night.  Between 1920 and 1950, the tradition of trick-or-treating was revived.  This became wholly revitalized by the 1950’s, when we saw a huge population of children being born.  Trick-or-treating became an inexpensive way for the entire community to be involved in Halloween-centered activities.

     It is during this time that a new American tradition was born. Today, Americans spend an estimated 6 billion dollars on Halloween annually, making it the second largest commercial holiday in the country.

     It is no surprise that with all its superstition gathered from different cultures around the world, that Halloween would find its home in Salem, Massachusetts.  For this is a community that has embraced its supernatural past and present, and continues to make its mark in the collective and ever-evolving history of one of America’s most celebrated holidays.  Salem makes for the perfect backdrop to a holiday based on remembering the past, and especially the dead.  I think that our 19th century Salemites would be proud that we continue the tradition of remembering the dead in our own way.  Of course, the preservation of the sites that allow for that remembrance is most important, and our city is doing its best to ensure that the trappings of the tourist season does not overtake that cause.  This year, our Fire Department proudly proclaimed that open flames are no longer allowed in the city, so that an accident does not occur.  So although people worry, our officials are doing their best, combined with the efforts of various tour companies that worry for the safety of the sites they visit every day. 

     And exchanges like these, between public historians, tour communities and city officials to ensure that people visiting our city can both have a great time, and leave something for future generations to learn from at the same time, is what makes Salem such a special place.  We love our history, we love our historic building and figures fiercely, and with passion.  But this does not mean that we don’t, or can’t love our spooky side just as fiercely and with just as much passion.  I don’t think early revelers would have settled for less.


Sources: “History of Halloween.”

Ocker, J.W., A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem Massachusetts. The Countrymen Press. New York, NY. 2016.

The American Folklife Center