Thursday, October 31, 2013

Victorian Halloween Customs

Happy Halloween!

I hope you have a bewitching All Hallow's Eve.


Did you know Victorian Americans saw Halloween as a brand new holiday? A wave of Irish immigrants in the 1820's to 1840's, fleeing the potato famine, brought their Halloween traditions with them to America. The holiday was celebrated with a mixture of wholesome Victorian values and the mysticism of the spiritualist movement. Children were sent to bed and adults celebrated late into the night. Victorians downplayed the element of death, treating Halloween as a chance for merriment and matchmaking, much like our modern Valentine's Day. It wasn't until the early 1900's that Halloween became the children's holiday we celebrate today.


Divination and Spirit Contact

Divination was a popular Halloween activity for young Victorian women. The types of divination practiced had their roots in folklore and spiritualist practices. Using household items, like mirrors or apples, girls would attempt to find out who their future husband would be. 

Followers of the spiritualist movement practiced in seances where mediums tried to contact the dead. Dumb suppers were also held, in which participants ate dinner in complete silence and extra places were set to encourage the spirits of dead loved ones to sit at the table.


Matchmaking was common at Halloween parties in the Victorian era. It was partly to do with the time of year. A couple could be introduced at Halloween, come to know each other at various Christmas events and marry in the spring. Halloween parties were a chance for young people to socialize and for older relatives to scheme about their marriage prospects. Halloween was generally regarded as a holiday for unmarried adults and Victorian magazines and newspapers urged married couples to stay at home. This was probably recommended so that they wouldn't spoil the matchmaking plans of younger relatives.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Parlour Games

Many of the Halloween activities we know today originated in the parlour games of the Victorian era. Bobbing for apples and jumping candlesticks were common activities. Dancing and singing celebrated a successful harvest. Costume parties were becoming popular and women often dressed as traditional Halloween creatures like cats and bats, usually just adding a mask to a black dress they already owned. Ghost stories were common, but they took on the romantic themes of Gothic literature which was seeing a re-emergence.  Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker brought an eroticism to the Gothic revival movement that inspired the ghostly tales and plays performed at Victorian Halloween parties.


Festive Food

Pumpkins became an important Halloween food in the Victorian era. Irish immigrants had brought to America the tradition of carving turnips. The custom was reinterpreted as carving pumpkins, which were abundant during the Halloween season. Pumpkins were also featured in many Halloween desserts like pumpkin pie and cheesecake. Apples were used in pastries and incorporated into stuffing and other savory dishes. Caramel corn and candied apples were popular. Confectionary companies began producing candy specifically for Halloween. Candy corn and pumpkins were introduced in the 1880's.

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