For centuries, people have viewed Halloween as a time when the veil between life and death is temporarily raised. It is the time when the dead can mingle with the living. Ancient autumn rituals that had been practiced throughout the British Isles and Europe were eventually transformed and Christianized. Despite attempts to tame these practices and beliefs, the supernatural ruled Victorian Era Halloween festivities.
Many of the old beliefs were changing by the Victorian Era, According to historian Lesley Bannatyne, “… the world had turned on its head. Darwin had published The Origin of the Species (1859), and archeology, spurred by excavations in Egypt and Greece, excited the public imagination. Victorians began to see history as a series of progressive layers.”
The idea of the “undead” was flatly rejected by some. Still, the “other side” continued to fascinate many. The telling of frightening ghost stories, seances and other practices were hugely popular for Victorian Era Halloween celebrations. Creepy headless photography was a big favorite. Spirit photography also reflected a Victorian Era fascination with the supernatural as evidenced in these photographs from The Museum of Photography.
For others, Halloween gradually became a kinder, fuzzier holiday. Ghosts and devils got a cute makeover. At one point in the Victorian Era Halloween became a romantic holiday that competed with Valentine’s Day. Victorian Era Halloween celebrations ranged from terrifying to sweet, much like today, but that fascination with supernatural persisted.
The Celtic Festival Of The Dead: Samhain to Halloween
Halloween had its roots in ancient Celtic festivals of the dead. November 1 marked the Celtic New Year, a time when people prepared for winter. They brought animals to closer pastures, harvested crops and stored food to survive the colder, darker time ahead.
The fall festival, which was the biggest of the Celtic year, was called Samhain. (Depending on your source, it could be pronounced Sah-ween, Sow-in or Sah-win). They believed recently departed souls could still visit the living, particularly on that day. Celebrations included sacrificing animals and lighting bon-fires to honor the dead and assist them in their journey to the other side.
When Christianity came to the area, there was an uneasy alliance. Rather than trying to eradicate local traditions and beliefs, Pope Gregory the First, in 601 A.D., instructed missionaries to transform them. Existing celebrations received makeovers with a Christian twist. The result was a raucous good time that blended pagan harvest festivals, feasting, supernatural games and a Christian remembrance of the dead.
Hence, the Druidic festival that took place on October 31 st morphed into All Soul’s Evening (a.k.a. all Hallow’s Eve). The festival on November 1st became the Feast of All Saints. All Souls Day, the day to honor all dead, followed on November 2nd. The three days are known collectively as Allhallowtide.
A Victorian Era Halloween Primer
Following are a few of the best spooky ideas that morphed over the centuries into Victorian Era Halloween festivities and beyond. You will recognize a few from your own Halloween mayhem.
#1 Beware: Ghouls, Ghosts And Goblins
October 31 was the night ghouls, goblins, ghosts, witches, spirits and all types of unsavory characters from the other side traveled in large numbers. Even fairies, both good and evil, could be included in the line-up. This was their night to howl, frighten, enlighten, inspire and generally to touch base with the living.
#2 Guising: Evade The Undead And Other Unruly Beings
First and foremost, you must disguise yourself. In the practice of guising, people wore disguises (a.k.a. costumes) so they would not be recognized by these various mischievous entities.
#3 Protect Yourself From The Other Side
Protections from mischief and general mayhem included use of holy water, crosses, fires and food offerings. One of the best ways to appease the undead was to place food and wine outside your door so roaming spirits would not be tempted to enter your house.
#4 Jack-‘o-lanterns Ward Off Evil Spirits
People have carved turnips, pumpkins and other gourds for centuries. At Halloween, the faces were scary to ward off the evil ones. In one folk tale, a man named Jack got drunk one night and tricked the devil who came to claim his soul. Jack lived his life drinking and carousing. When he died, he was refused entrance to Heaven and the devil tossed him a hot coal from hell. Jack put it inside a pumpkin to guide him as his soul was doomed to wander eternally.
#5 Soul Cakes Are Good For The Soul
Soul cakes were small round spice cakes given to “soulers” who came door-to-door. Usually children or the poor, the soulers promised to pray for dead relatives of the people who gave them cakes. Some historians believe this tradition gave birth to trick-or-treating.
#6 Welcome The Dead With Offerings
Some cultures used food to entice spirits to visit them. In Italy, large meals were left on the table while the family went to Mass. In France, bowls of milk were left at gravesites.
#7 And Don’t Forget Dia De Muertos
In Mexico, Latin America and now many other countries, Halloween is the day to help the deceased in their journey to the other side. It was originally an Aztec festival to honor the dead. As with the Celtic traditions, it became Christianized to coincide with Allhallowtide.
People create elaborately decorated altars that include elements of earth, wind, water and fire. They frequently include the favorite foods and sometimes belongings of the deceased they wish to honor. Marigolds are also used to invite the dead to visit. Sugar skulls remind the living of their own mortality.
Beware on Halloween as a gap opens in the flimsy veil between life and death!
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