The History of Halloween and How Museums Celebrate

October 30, 2019

To celebrate Halloween, it is time to remind ourselves of how Halloween became the holiday we know in the twenty-first century. Halloween’s earliest root is the Pagan celebration and ancient Gaelic festival Samhain (pronounced “saah-win”) which marked the time of year when seasons changed, and many observers believed the boundary between this world and the outside world is at its thinnest to connect with the dead. Margot Alder explained in her book Drawing Down the Moon that Pagans, or Neo-Pagans, are varying religious groups with differing tradition, scope, structure, organizations, ritual, and names of their deities but regard one another as part of the same religious and philosophical movement; they share the same set of values and communicate with one another through a network of newsletters and websites, as well as regional and national gatherings. Her book went into detail about groups that attempt to recreate ancient European pre-Christian religions with leaders who developed key concepts and theories that are now common within the whole of Paganism. In an attempt to keep this post straight to the point, I will share how Samhain was celebrated, how it is celebrated nowadays, and how it led to the Halloween we now celebrate from resources I came across.

Early celebrations of Samhain involved a lot of ritualistic ceremonies to connect to spirits including celebrating in costumes (using animal skins) as a disguise themselves against ghosts, special feasts, built bon fires, and made lanterns by hollowing out gourds. During these celebrations, people would also tell each other fortunes. After the celebration was over, they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them and keep themselves warm during the winter months.

Modern Pagans still celebrate the holiday with death as its central theme. According to Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, she pointed out

Although observances may include merry-making, the honoring of the Dead that is central to Samhain is a serious religious practice rather than a light-hearted make-believe re-enactment. Today’s Pagan Samhain rites, while somber, are benevolent, and, although centered on death, do not involve human or animal sacrifices. Most Samhain rituals are held in private rather than in public.

There are many ways that Pagans today celebrate Samhain. Like people of other faiths, they always honor and show respect for their dead but modern Pagans particularly mark these practices during Samhain. When loved ones recently die, they are remembered, and their spirits are often invited to join the living in the celebratory feast. They also spend time during Samhain formally welcome those born during the past year into the community. Because death symbolizes endings, Samhain is not only a time to reflect on mortality, but it is a time to take stock of the past and coming to terms with it before moving on and looking forward to the future. As Christianity grew, Samhain practices were adopted and branched out into religious holidays celebrating their saints.

When Christians adopted the practices, they celebrated it as All Hallows’ Eve on October 31st, followed by All Saints’ Day on November 1st, retaining the elements of remembering and honoring the dead. All Hallows’ Eve literally means “hallowed evening”, and both All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day paid homage to the holy saints, or “hallows”. The Church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows’ Eve when worshippers prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast. A third holiday, All Souls’ Day, was usually combined with the other celebrations and traditions from this holiday seem to be precursors of the modern Halloween celebrations. In some traditions, children went from door to door begging for soul cakes (or small cakes described as hot-cross buns, current-topped buns, or small round loaves) and state a traditional rhyme on the day: “A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake, Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake”. This tradition evolved into trick-or treating that the candy-grabbing concept became part of the mainstream in the United States between early to mid-1900s when families would provide treats for children hoping they would be immune to the holiday pranks. How do museums relate to Halloween celebrations?

As with other holidays celebrated, museums look for opportunities to engage with visitors and participate within their communities. When museums began to focus on visitor engagement to remain relevant, more programs celebrating Halloween emerged. Current examples of Halloween museum programs are limitless so I will share some of the ones I came across.

Of course, the most popular place to visit during Halloween is in Salem, Massachusetts. There is a website about family friendly events that happen in Salem, especially during Halloween, called Haunted Happenings . Events include but not limited to The Salem Psychic Fair & Witches’ Market, Witch’s Brew Patisserie Tea, Black Cat Tales Book Signing and Discussion, Salem Haunted Magic Show presents Hysteria: Ghost Stories, 28th Annual Temple of Nine Wells-ATC Witches of Salem Magick Circle 2019 e.v. For Samhain Night Free Event, and Haunted Dinner Theater presents Clue Live.

Last Sunday, the New York Historical Society had an event called Beyond Spooky: Hallowe’en Family Party to celebrate their exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere. Some of the activities they had included get a ride on one of two visiting ponies, create your own horse on a stick, listen to spooky stories, craft secret messages with our Living Historian spymaster, and trick-or-treat for candy.

The Museum of the City of New York has a Halloween party on Halloween geared to families with children ages 6–12 years old. Adults and children attending the party can wear costumes to trick or treat on the spooky New York scavenger hunt, make fun Halloween themed accessories, and dance at the monster mash dance party. Not all Halloween celebrations in museums only target families to attend their public events.

In Connecticut, the New Britain Museum of American Art has an event called Spooky Speakeasy: 1920s Halloween Party! On Halloween partygoers will arrive at the Museum to experience the 1920’s-inspired nightclub to enjoy hors d’oeuvres, learn how to do the Lindy Hop and the Charleston from professional dancers, and listen to live music of the period performed by The Cartells. There is an event that is more for adults but kids can participate if they wish to participate in being scared.

On select dates between September 20th and November 9th, the Eastern State Penitentiary is holding an event for the Halloween season called Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary which is America’s largest haunted house. It consists of six haunted attractions included in one admission price: Lock Down (zombie inmates and guards), Machine Shop (interactive attractions with maniacal surgeons, dentists, and nurses), Infirmary, Blood Yard, Quarantine 4D, and Break Out (inmates using visitors to aid in their escape). No matter how you celebrate this year, I hope everyone stays safe and has a wonderful time.

Happy Halloween! Blessed Samhain!

Resources and Additional Resources:  

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America, New York: Penguin Group, 1979; revised edition 2006, pp. 3, 243–99.

Morton, Lisa. The Halloween Encyclopedia, Second Edition, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2011.

Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.

https://www.countryliving.com/entertaining/a40250/heres-why-we-really-celebrate-halloween/

https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/celebrating-the-seasons/celebrating-samhain

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/samhain.shtml

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/halloween_1.shtml

Halloween Event at the Jack the Ripper Museum, London: https://www.jacktherippermuseum.com/

Hershey’s Chocolate Tastings, Hershey, PA: https://hersheystory.org/hersheys-chocolate-tastings/

My Impressions of Salem Witch Museum: https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2018/10/04/patron-request-museum-impressions-salem-witch-museum/

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