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GEARY: Halloween customs have roots in the past

• Oct 27, 2017 at 3:00 PM

It’s that time of year again for many of us to celebrate Halloween. We wear costumes, go to parties, participate in trick-or-treating and decorate with jack-o-lanterns.

All of these customs have roots in the past.

In the late 1800s, the observance of Halloween was more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations.

Food at Halloween parties would include candy, nuts, gingerbread, doughnuts, popcorn and popcorn balls, and candied apples. Trick-or-treating did not become popular until the 1930s, though the practice of it did occur much earlier than that in parts of the country. Several games were associated with Halloween parties including bobbing for apples.

Some games traditionally played at Victorian Halloween celebrations were forms of divination. One practice was to peel an apple with a knife, allowing the long peel to fall to the floor. It was said that the peel would form the first letter of the name of the person you were to marry. Telling ghost stories was also a common practice. Masks, especially those that covered the eyes, were often worn at parties.

Decorations in the past might include vases of ferns, chrysanthemums or autumn leaves. Strings of cranberries and bowls of nuts were also used. Just as with today, jack-o-lanterns, candles and images of ghosts, witches, bats, cats, owls, skulls and spiders were commonly found.

The colors of Halloween and their symbolism also stem from the past. Black, used to represent darkness, was the color chosen for cats, spiders and bats. Orange represented fall, pumpkins and leaves. Purple was used to show magic and shadows; while green demonstrated witches and goblins; and white, of course, represented ghosts or the otherworld.

Spiritualism used to be a common practice. Victorians were deeply involved with death in their day-to-day lives. There was a sincere and widely held belief in life after death, but the Victorian age was also the age of scientific inquiry and invention. Scientific inquiry mixed with a belief in life after death led Victorians to try to understand what was on the other side “of the veil.”

The most common way of testing what couldn’t be seen was to ask a spirit on the other side. This practice of speaking to spirits was called spiritualism. There were many different types of spiritualism including séances, table rapping/tipping and automatic writing. Séances were the attempt to reach a loved one who had died, often using an Ouija board. Rapping was to ask a spirit to manifest its energy by making a rapping noise on a table or even by moving it.

Automatic writing meant that mediums would go into a trance and focus only on moving a pen on a page. Eventually, often unconsciously to the medium, words would begin to take form and it was thought the spirits were controlling the pen to communicate.

Another aspect of the Victorian fascination with death was the practice of mourning dress, as clothing was the outward display of how a person was feeling. The practice of dressing in mourning was established by Queen Victoria following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Widows were expected to be in mourning and dress fully in black for up to two years following the death of their husband. Deepest mourning clothes were made of non-reflective materials and women wore heavy veils, completely hiding their faces.

Over time, the color worn during the mourning period changed, from black to purple to gray to mauve. This transition into wearing color again was known as being in half-mourning, which was the final six months of mourning.

Mourning dress was really carried out by the wealthy classes who could afford the extravagant clothing expected to be worn, though working-class people would follow what customs they could, for example, by wearing black armbands. Though nowhere near as extravagant or controlled, the custom of wearing black to funerals as a sign of mourning continues to this day.

To view Halloween decorations from the past, stop by the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. The Victorian House exhibit is decorated in vintage Halloween finery. Our Halloween display can be viewed during normal visiting hours through Halloween. Please visit www.tri-citiesmuseum.org for more information. Happy Halloween!

— By Kevin Geary, curator of education for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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