Halloween is by far my favorite time of the year! Between the crisp fall weather, the candy, the food, children, costumes, and horror, there’s nothing I don’t love about it. Halloween has an extensive history with many forms of celebration, but Halloween as we celebrate it today can largely be attributed to the Victorians!
Backtracking briefly, early roots of Halloween are traced back to the ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain (pronounced Saah-win). Samhain was celebrated on November 1st and marked the end of the harvest season and the spiritual beginning of a new year. On the night before Samhain, people believed that spirits of the deceased would return Earth. As a precaution, they would leave food and wine on their doorsteps as offerings for the spirits, and would wear masks outside of the house in the hopes that they would be mistaken for fellow ghosts and, therefore, left alone.
Around year 800, these customs of Samhain were Christianized by the church and referred to as All Saints Day or All Hallows Day, thereby making October 31st All Hallows Eve and later shortened to Halloween.
In Medieval times, there would be celebrations with plenty of food. On All Souls Day (November 2nd), the needy would beg for customary “soul cakes”, and in return, they would offer to pray for the giver’s deceased relatives. This practice was called Souling. Another Medieval practice called Guising was when children would dress in a disguise and going house to house to accept food, wine, or money in exchange for entertainment such as singing, telling jokes, or reciting verses of poetry.
In Victorian America, many Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, began to revive some of these old traditions. This was the beginning of what has become our modern Trick-or treating, although back then, it was more of an excuse to act mischievous than the innocent fun it is today.
Many Victorian lady’s magazines urged woman to have grandiose parties in celebration of Halloween. Unlike Christmas, this was a holiday that could be more fun and informal, so it was the perfect reason to entertain. These Halloween parties often included extravagant decorations featuring creatures like witches and ghosts as well as jack-o-lanterns, gourds, and corn stalks. Young people, of course would wear paper masks, homemade costumes, and party hats, and a bounty of food would be served such as apples, nuts, and cakes. For entertainment at these parties, there would often be fortune telling, games, dancing, and ghost stories.
Although our modern interpretation of Halloween did not begin forming until the 1920s, the Victorians had a major impact on how we celebrate today by their decorations, entertainment, and beginning a modern interpretation of old medieval traditions.