Halloween Superstitions of the 19th Century

Halloween superstitions
Queen Victoria Celebrating Halloween. Public Domain.

There were many Halloween superstitions of the nineteenth century that were steeped in tradition. For instance, in Wales, bonfires were lit and white stones cast into the ashes to determine how long a person would live. If any stone was visible in the morning, it was claimed, the person who threw in the stones would not live to see another birthday. The same belief existed in the Scottish Highlands where a large-scale version of this was seen each year at Balmoral when Queen Victoria visited. She carried a lighted torch, and tossed it “upon the fire, in which a grotesque figure [was] burnt, whose supposed cries [were] presumed to be drowned by the sound of bagpipes.”[1]

Halloween was also the time when witches, warlocks, and fairies enjoyed revels. In Irish and Scottish folklore there was also the Phooka, “a large, dusky-looking create that sometimes took the form of a horse or pony, sometimes that of a bull, and not unfrequently of a huge bird like the roc, with fire gleaming from its eyes and nostrils.”[2] The Phooka lurked around on Halloween, crept noiselessly upon travelers, and slinked between their legs before throwing them to the moon, plunging them into a lake, or flying with them over mountains or remote realms. Continue reading

Christmas Cards and the Loss of Christmas

Christmas Cards: The First Commercially Produced Christmas Card, Designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole
The First Commercially Produced Christmas Card, Designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole

Christmas cards first appeared in 1843 when a civil servant named Sir Henry Cole decided he was too busy to send individual greetings to his business colleagues, family, and friends. Instead he decided to seek out his friend, a painter named John Callcott Horsley. Cole asked Horsley to create him a card with a brief greeting that he could mail to colleagues, family, and friends.

The result was the world’s first commercially produced Christmas card. It was a triptych, with the two side panels. The center panel depicted three generations of family gathered for Christmas dinner, and both side panels showed charitable scenes.

Nearly forty years later in 1882, some people claimed Christmas cards no longer represented Christmas of long ago and that Victorian cards celebrating the holiday had lost Christmas’s original meaning. To demonstrate this, one Victorian newspaper wrote an article about the Christmas card industry. Here is their view verbatim: Continue reading

Christmas Game Snap-Dragon From the 18th and 19th Century

Fanciful Image of a Dragon Playing the Christmas Game Snap-dragon From 1879
Fanciful Image of a Dragon Playing Snap-dragon From 1879, Author’s Collection

When eighteenth and nineteenth century families came together on Christmas Eve, there were several activities that people enjoyed indoors. Besides dancing, cards, or dice, there were sometimes parlor games. One favorite parlor game played in England was called “Snap-dragon” but also known as “Snapdragon,” “Flap-dragon,” or “flapdragon.” It was a popular game from the sixteenth century and described in the following way:

A quantity of raisins are deposited in a large dish or bowl (the broader and shallower this is, the better), and brandy or some other spirit is poured over the fruit and ignited. The bystanders now endeavour, by turns, to grasp a raisin, by plunging their hands through the flames; and as this is somewhat of an arduous feat, requiring both courage and rapidity of action, a considerable amount of laughter and merriment is evoked at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors.

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Raising Turkeys for Market in the 1800s

raising turkeys
Bronze Gobbler, Author’s Collection

In the 1800s, turkeys were raised with the idea of the ultimate end: killing them and eating them. Turkeys were not exactly domesticated either. Apparently, when they were chicks they were nomads and when they gained locomotion they scurried away at the slightest provocation. They also had a habit of making beelines for distant haunts, which made them difficult to find when it came to selling them at market for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Continue reading

Perpetual and Universal Peace: A Message of Thanksgiving in 1814

Thomas Belsham, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Thomas Belsham, Courtesy of Wikipedia

This week is the week of Thanksgiving, and like many others, I will be celebrating. However, before I go off to stuff myself with turkey, yams, and pumpkin pie, I wanted to leave you with a message delivered by the English Unitarian minister, Thomas Belsham at the Essex Street Chapel on July 3, 1814.

Belsham’s sermon of thanksgiving came after the Treaty of Paris was signed on May 30. This treaty put “an end to the long, extended, and bloody war in which [England had been]…engaged with France and her allies.” Belsham’s hopeful message touched on his wish that peace could be “perpetual and universal.”

Here are some applicable passages from that sermon that we may want to remember at this time of year. Continue reading

May Day – Old and New

May Day: Queen Guinevere's Maying, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Queen Guinevere’s Maying, Courtesy of Wikipedia

May Day is a traditional European holiday that has been celebrated since ancient times in the springtime to honor the fertility of the soil, livestock, and people, as well as to demonstrate “joy at the return of spring.” Some of the early May Day celebrations included “blowing lustily through cows’ horns … [and] drinking deeply from cups.” These early celebrations, or “jollities” as they were called, occurred near “the first of May, to remind people of the pleasantness of that part of the year, which ought to create mirth and gaiety.” There was also the ever important gathering of flowers and branches from the hawthorn tree that legend claimed sprang from lightning and “possessed supernatural properties.” No one can forget the maypole either. It has served as a significant and major element in May Day celebrations, as have the maypole dances, which involved morris dances, a form of English folk dancing accompanied by music that involves rhythmic execution of choreographed steps. Traditional folk plays, known as mummeries, were also performed at May Day celebrations, and as time passed, new traditions have evolved and mixed together with the old traditions. Continue reading

Halloween in the 1800s

Painting by William Sidney Mount from 1838 of a Tea Leaf Reading at a Halloween Party, Public Domain
Painting by William Sidney Mount from 1838 of a Tea Leaf Reading at a Halloween Party, Public Domain

The name “Halloween” evolved over time. It was shortened from All Hallows’ Even and All Hallows Day — the evening of All Hallows’ Day and another name for All Saints’ Day, respectively. Eventually, it was contracted to “Halloween.”

Just as the name Halloween evolved, the holiday evolved too. It was initially influenced by Celtic-speaking countries with traditions such as Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year celebrated near the end of October. Another influence was All Hallows’ Even. It was a day commemorated in May by Catholics for saints. Despite uneasiness by the church, the day became associated with supernatural ideas, particularly after repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague occurred. All Souls’ Day also influenced Halloween. It was celebrated to honor the dead, and, similar to All Hallows’ Even, there was increased interest in death and the supernatural. Continue reading