In some ways, Halloween is fairly recent phenomena, and incredibly old in others. The roots of this holiday come from around 2,500 years ago. The festival of Samhain, or Summer’s End, occurred every October 31. It was dedicated to the transition between seasons and preparations for the harvest.
In later years, the powers that be in the Christian church sought to bring pagans into the fold. So, they appropriated many of their traditions and celebrations in the Christian calendar. Thus, October 31 became All Hallows Eve and November 1st turned into All Saints Day. Both of which are holidays that have to do with prayer, death, and ancestor/saint worship, rather than the march of time.
How Did the Victorians Celebrate?
In the Victorian era, Halloween was mostly celebrated in the UK, but it was gaining popularity in the US by the 1870s as well. People regarded the holiday as an Irish “import” to the US because of the Catholic Church and celebrating through prayer. During this time, people would sometimes go door to door in their neighborhood and sing, not unlike many Christmas traditions, and would be rewarded with festive treats. The promise of mischief if these treats weren’t delivered came later. The term “Trick or Treat” didn’t become popular until the 1920’s and is an American adaptation of the holiday.
Many ladies’ magazines like Godey’s and Petersons featured tips about how to hold a fabulous Halloween party. This included instructions for making paper decorations and costumes for kids. Paper had become very easy to come by and cheap due to industrialization, and it made for easy clean-up the next day.
Halloween party games included pin the tail on the donkey, bobbing for apples, and a variety of sooth-saying rituals. For instance, couple would write their names on nut shells and cast them into the fire. If the shell cracked they were in for a bumpy year, if the shell blackened but did not break they were going to marry. Young women were also sometimes sent into a dark room and told to select from a variety of boxes. They each contained an object that had some sort of significance for the year to come. Bloody Mary and other games are on off-shoot of this darkened room game, but the roots were in sooth-saying rather than anything scary.