Victorian Halloween Traditions – Now That’s Scary!

Nineteenth century Victorians had some very strange, to our eyes, norms. They included unusual occupations,  such as leech collectors, and peculiar and, in many cases poisonous, beauty rituals, including cosmetics containing arsenic, for one. Their style of architecture with its myriad hidden creaky staircases, turrets, secret rooms, underground tunnels and dark corners certainly mirrored our modern idea of a haunted house. But – believe it or not – Victorians weren’t much into the creep factor. Instead, the spooky Halloween season served as a chance for them to amp up their already irreverent style and behavior. It was a time to wonder about marital prospects, and bake cakes with needles in them!

While most of us think of Halloween as a time for pumpkins and goblins and trick-or-treating, Victorians turned their thoughts to walking down the aisle, and who might accompany them. A very popular parlor game of the time involved a man and a woman walking into a dark room and standing in front of a mirror. While peeling an apple (why ever for?), the woman would gaze into the mirror and perhaps see who her future groom might be. If, by chance, she saw a skeleton, she was doomed to be an old maid.

Another popular means of discerning one’s future marital status was to bake a cake with a needle, a thimble, a dime or a ring in it. If the slice of cake you were served contained a needle, spinsterhood was your fate, while all the other tokens indicated riches, good fortune or wedding bells. For practical purposes, another possible outcome of receiving the slice with the needle would be choking or injury. Just a thought!

As the Victorians were also very much into tea parties, they contrived a tea time game involving (what else?) tea and two teaspoons. The first spoon was placed on the edge of the cup, while the second spoon was used to slowly drip tea into the first spoon until it fell into the cup. The number of drops was said to indicate the number of years before the “ tea dropper” would marry.

Pumpkins were a Halloween tradition, but they weren’t the only vegetables used around Halloween. A popular veggie to carve was the turnip. In fact, they were often used to carve into lanterns or torches. Resourceful!

The pumpkins served another purpose – they were used as a “save the date” type of announcement. To be invited to a Halloween party was a social coup, and in order to alert the prospective guest of the impending event, a carved jack-o-lantern was left on his/her doorstep. The offering might be accompanied by a handmade card with a verse. A popular ode of the day was:

“ Come at the witching hour of eight,

And let the faeries read your fate.

Reveal to none this secret plot

Or woe – not luck – will be your lot.”    Scary!

Once the invitations were out, the atmosphere had to be set for the party. The house was always dark, except for jack-o-lanterns and fireplaces. Hostesses decorated with faux snakes made of tin, which were placed near a heat source, so they would appear to be moving. When guests were greeted, the hostess would extend her hand or possibly one made of a glove stuffed with sawdust. Eeek! Many partiers arrived wearing black cloaks, and the parties were often themed. Common themes were black cats, Cinderella, or Mother Goose. Those Victorians certainly knew how to set the mood!

However, remember the Victorians were proper and, for the most part, modest. Their party attire was accessorized with bat wings, headdresses, and gothic items. One had to appear only slightly incognito.

Now for the entertainment! Since Victorians were fascinated with anything Egyptian, a mummy unwrapping theme was sure to impress your guests. Of course, the hostess or host first had to procure a mummy, but this was not too difficult. Egyptian exporters were eager to supply mummies, and poorer Egyptian families were not adverse to making a little money off their dead ancestors. You might consider this an inheritance of sorts! Since the unwrapping might prove to be a rather smelly affair, heavy drinking before the main event was practically a necessity!

Another form of entertainment involved sitting around a fire, while holding a burning twig. The holder had until the twig burned out to tell a spooky story. It was then the next story teller’s turn.  Relatively tame!

Someone who loved Halloween, and loved the opportunity to throw an opulent, not tame party, was Queen Victoria. At her part-time residence in Balmoral, Scotland, the Queen would arrange for a lavish procession with everyone carrying torches and Her Majesty riding in an open carriage. The entourage made its way to a huge bonfire, where the effigy of a witch was tossed in, while all cheered. Sometimes an effigy of someone she disliked was the sad recipient of the bonfire. All this merriment was accompanied by wailing bagpipes. Queen Victoria sometimes received backlash for such festivities, as a large crowd bearing torches sometimes got out of hand. In 1874, she actually had to close the party down, as the crowd became so rowdy that they were too raucous to be let inside the castle for refreshments!

For those too timid, or who did not have the means to afford such extravagant entertainment, there was always apple bobbing! Not very scary but a lot cheaper!

Happy Halloween!