Windham Historical Society member Paula Sparks in her bunny costume with plastic mask circa 1950s. Courtesy of Paula Sparks

In Windham these days, Halloween is a purely secular holiday and ranks only second to Christmas in terms of celebration popularity.  But in its earliest days, Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, was not a welcome occasion in the town of New Marblehead.

Halloween has its origins in the Celtic holiday of Samhain (sow-hen) that began as a Druid festival. Later, the Celts celebrated the holiday as part of their New Year’s observance on Nov. 1. The day marked the end of the summer and the harvest and the beginning of the cold, dark winter. In Celtic tradition, on the night before the New Year, it was believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurred and ghosts roamed the earth.

Samhain was later blended with two Roman holidays, one honoring the dead and the other honoring Pomona, the Roman Goddess of trees and fruit. It was designated All Soul’s Day in the 8th century by Pope Gregory, and some of the old Celtic customs like dressing up in costumes and burning bonfires were resurrected.

Clockwise from left, Samantha, Peter, Isaiah, Roy and Silas Clark of Windham enjoyed Halloween trick-or-treating last October. Courtesy photo

These customs were not looked upon favorably by our Protestant forefathers, who would have vigorously resisted celebrating any such holiday. The only places in town that may have recognized All Hallows’ Eve would have been in Scots and Irish households where Catholics could celebrate their faith and their Celtic roots.

The staunch disapproval of Halloween began waning in Windham  much the same as it did everywhere else in America. In the mid-18th century different European ethnic groups brought their traditions to town. “Play parties“ became popular and public events were held where town folk enjoyed the bounty of the harvest while sharing stories of the dead, telling each other’s fortunes and singing and dancing the night away.

In the second half of the 19th century, immigrants from Scotland and Ireland flooded the country and their Old Country customs gained popularity. As their influence spread to our area, dressing in costume and going from door to door to ask for food or money became more common. By the early 20th century, the focus shifted to making Halloween more about community and less about ghosts and witchcraft. Halloween parties focused more on games, seasonal food and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by local newspapers and community leaders to take away the frightening aspects of the day and Halloween began losing its superstitious overtones.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Windham would most likely have had community-centered Halloween activities. Town-wide parties at the time included entertainment, parades and feasting on the fall harvest. By the 1950s, the old practice of going door to door regained popularity and “trick-or-treating” became the norm. This was a reasonably inexpensive way for the entire community to share in the fun. It was also at this time that vandalism became associated with Halloween, so providing neighborhood kids with treats was done in the hopes it would spare the household from pranksters.

Today, many people choose to take their little ghosts and goblins to parties at the homes of friends or to their workplace to celebrate. Events like Windham’s “Trunk or Treat” are also safe ways to commemorate the day while letting friends mix and mingle while dressing up in creative costumes. Halloween is no longer a pagan ritual evoking ghosts and spirits, it’s just a time to evoke our sense of fun, expression and imagination.

Haley Pal can be contacted at [email protected]

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