Friday, October 21, 2011

Halloween in the Victorian Era

With one of my favorite holidays fast approaching, I thought I'd write a bit about Halloween in the Victorian era. (In this present era, I am somewhat prepared with candy, but cannot decide on a costume).

Halloween has it's origins in the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. For the Celts the new year started on November 1, and it was believed that the night before this, was a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead were the thinnest. It was a night when the spirits of the dead would wander about and one could communicate easier with them to divine the future. The holiday was celebrated with bonfires, and parades, with people dressing up as animals or wearing masks, to trick the wandering spirits. Food and a lit candle were also left on doorsteps to feed the visitors from the other side.
Later the church tried to Christianize the holiday by turning November 1 into All Saints Day and November 2 into All Souls Day. Instead of leaving food out as offerings to the dead, people were encouraged to give the food to the poor. The custom of giving out small cakes to the poor, called "soul cakes" was developed, and it is believed that this is the origin of trick or treating.

During the later half of the 19th century, many of the Victorians tried to de-emphasize the creepy or spooky aspects of Halloween and make it more cutesy, as you can see by these not scary at all costumes below.

There were still those that loved the scary side, but for most it was at time to hold parties with a harvest type theme, with parlour games and dancing. A popular game was the Halloween pudding. The host would bake a fruit cake with five objects hidden inside - a ring, a coin, a thimble, a button and a key. At 9pm the oldest person would cut the cake in silence and give out the pieces. It was believed that the first words spoken after the cake was cut would be prophetic for the year. Whoever got the piece with the ring would marry that year, the coin would be wealthy, the button meet their love, the key go on a journey, and the thimble be an old maid/bachelor.

Another game that had a few variations, was one where single women would go alone into a darkened room with a mirror and a candle. They would take an apple with them and try to peel it all in one piece, or slice the apple. It was believed your true love's face would appear in the mirror. If you were going to die that year, a skull would appear.
There was also a game where young women would go one by one into a dark room with a chest of drawers with boxes in them. They would be told that the room was haunted, and they would have to go into the room in silence and collect a box from the drawer without screaming (apparently women back then screamed easily). The box was filled with party favors for the guest. It doesn't sound scary to me, but maybe if you had a great ghost story it might be more fun.

So what are your plans for celebrating the most spooktacular holiday of the year?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. That first image exudes such dignity, yet it's totally creepy when you look closely at those guys peering over her shoulder. I love it!

    I think the "not scary at all" costumes are kinda cute in a quaint way, although maybe it's partly because of the old, sepia photo. Something about it is just too charming to me. Then again, Halloween isn't really supposed to be "charming" by today's standards... ;-D

  2. I really enjoyed reading your Halloween blog! I’d never heard of the darkened room games before (maybe because I’m a guy). It’s too bad so many great old traditions get sanitized through “social-progress”. I actually remember the cake as a kid. Great images too – thanks Lou!

  3. Ha ha! I love your historical overview! I plan on having Howloween....a little party with the dogs all dressed up! Then I plan to trick the hubby into playing with the ouija board...then scaring the daylights out of him. :) Someones got to right? :) Hearts, Janna Lynn

  4. I had no idea that our modern version of Halloween dated to the Victorian era! I thought it was much younger, honestly! Although the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that the Victorians were the ones to develop it - it's right up their alley.

    I'm going to a Goth-tastic Halloween shindig with youuu on the Saturday, which I am super excited about. And on the day of days, I actually have a doctor's appointment... I'm dressing up for work, so I'll be sitting in the waiting room in full costume! I hope I make some new friends.

  5. I am not kidding- I was looking up information to write a post about Victorian Halloween yesterday! Then I got distracted by having to actually do work at work, and then a party after work... I saw all of those photos you posted too! :-P

    Thank you or the very informative post. James Joyce actually writes about the cake tradition in one of his short stories in "Dubliners," actually.