Victorians Partied Hard On Halloween

by Mimi Matthews

Despite their reputation for straight-laced sobriety, the Victorians celebrated Halloween with great enthusiasm—and often with outright abandon. Victorian Halloween parties were filled with fun, games, and spooky rituals, some of which still feature at Halloween parties today. Many of the games had origins in pagan religion or medieval superstition. Others were merely a means of making merry with one’s friends. Regardless, Halloween parties of the 19th century were an occasion for indulging in what author Hugh Miller describes in his 1876 book Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland as:

“….a multitude of wild mischievous games which were tolerated at no other season.”

For an example of a Victorian Halloween party, we need look no further than Queen Victoria herself. In 1876, the queen, along with Princess Beatrice and the Marchioness of Ely, celebrated Halloween at Balmoral Castle on a grand scale. Preparations took place for days in advance and, on the night of the celebration, the turnout included farmers and tenants who had come from miles around. When darkness fell, the festivities began. The November 6, 1874 edition of the Staffordshire Sentinel reports:

“Her Majesty and the Princess Beatrice, each bearing a large torch, drove out in an open phaeton. A procession, formed of the tenants and servants on the estates, followed. All carried high torches, lighted. They walked through the grounds and round the castle, and the scene as the procession moved onwards was very weird and striking.”

When the procession arrived in front of the castle, a huge bonfire was lit. It was at this point that the proceedings began to take on a distinctly pagan air. As the Staffordshire Sentinel writes:

“When the flames were at their brightest a figure dressed as a hobgoblin appeared on the scene, drawing a car surrounded by a number of fairies carrying long spears, the car containing the effigy of a witch. A circle having been formed by the torchbearers, the presiding elf tossed the figure of the witch into the fire, where it was speedily consumed. This act of cremation over, reels began, and were danced with great vigour to the stirring strains of Willie Ross, her Majesty’s piper.”

balmoral copy fc180“Halloween at Balmoral” from The Staffordshire Sentinel, 1874. (©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

A ball was meant to follow this celebration, however, owing to the high spirits of the crowd, the proceedings were, instead, continued outdoors with the bonfire burning well into the night.

Of course, not everyone could celebrate Halloween in as magnificent a manner as Queen Victoria. For those of more modest means, indoor party games were quite popular. Many of the games were a means of foretelling the future, especially in relation to discovering the sort of gentleman whom one would eventually marry. In fact, the emphasis on matchmaking at these parties frequently overshadowed the more sinister associations of the holiday, such as witches and witchcraft or communing with the dead.

The Ride Through the Murky Air. The Lancashire Witches, 1848.

In her 1893 book How to Amuse Yourself and Others, author Linda Beard lists some of the most common Victorian party games (popular both in England and America). The first involves melting lead in order to determine the occupation of one’s future husband. Beard describes the game as follows:

“Each girl, in turn, holds a door-key in one hand, while with the other hand she pours the melted lead, from an iron spoon or ladle, through the handle of the key into a pan of cold water. In the fanciful shapes the lead assumes can be traced resemblances to all sorts of things. Sometimes it is a sword or gun, which indicates that a soldier will win the fair prize; again, traces of a ship may be seen: then the favored one is to be a sailor; a plough suggests a farmer; a book, a professor, or perhaps a minister; and when the lead forms only drops, it seems to mean that the gentle inquirer will not marry, or if she does, her husband will be of no profession.”

Another game called “Three Luggies” derives from a game mentioned in Robert Burns’ 1785 poem Halloween. It reads in part:

In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
The luggies three are ranged;
An’ ev’ry time great care is ta’en
To see them duly changed.

The game of Three Luggies requires three bowls — one filled with clear water, one with milky water, and the last one empty. The three bowls are placed on the hearthstone and the young lady who wishes to play is blindfolded and led up to them. As Beard describes:

“She is then told to put her left hand into one of the bowls. If she dips her fingers in the clear water, she will marry a bachelor; if in the milky water, a widower; and if into the empty bowl, it is a sure sign that she will live in single blessedness all her days. This ceremony must be gone through with three times, and the hand be dipped twice in the same bowl, in order to make the prediction of any value.”

There is a version of this game for gentlemen as well. It is nearly identical, except that, according to the 1832 Book of Days, one of the bowls is filled with “foul water.” If the gentleman dips his fingers into the clean water, he is destined to marry a maiden. If he dips his fingers into the foul water, there is a widow in his future. And if he encounters the empty bowl, he is fated to end his days a bachelor.

Another popular game involved roasting nuts in order to test friendship or compatibility. This particular game is mentioned in many books and articles of the era. In it, two nuts are chosen and placed side by side on the grate or on a shovel that is held over the fire. Beard explains:

“If they burn quietly, it is prophetic of a long and happy friendship kept up by both parties; but if in roasting they burst with a loud report and fly apart, they are decidedly uncongenial, and should not seek much intercourse. The movements of the nuts while heating are closely watched, for the tempers of the persons for whom they are named is said to be thus revealed.”

A slightly different version of this game is related in the Book of Days. It states:

“It is a custom in Ireland, when the young women would know if their lovers are faithful, to put three nuts upon the bars of the grate, naming the nuts after their lovers. If a nut cracks or jumps, the lover will prove unfaithful; if it begins to blaze or burn, he has a regard for the person making the trial.”

Halloween Greeting Card depicting the Magic Mirror game, circa 1904.

Games with mirrors were also a favorite. The Book of Days describes a particular “spell” which involved eating an apple in front of a mirror. If the spirits were amenable, the young lady would be able to see the reflection of the gentleman she would one day marry “peeping over her shoulder.” Beard mentions another game in which a mirror was used to discern how many incidents of good fortune would befall a person in the coming year. In order to do this, Beard explains:

“The conditions are that the person wishing to know how bright her prospects are shall go to an open window or door from which the moon is visible, and, standing with her face in-doors, hold her mirror so that the moon will be reflected in it. The number of moons she sees there betokens the number of times something pleasant will happen to her before the advent of another Halloween.”

You will notice that most of these games were geared toward young ladies. This was fairly common in the Victorian era. However, this did not mean that there was no entertainment available for young gentlemen. Bobbing for apples has always been one of the most popular games at Halloween parties and the 19th century was no exception. Miller writes:

“…a large tub filled with water, was placed in the middle of the floor of some outhouse, carefully dressed up for the occasion; and into the tub every one of the party flung an apple. They then approached it by turns, and placing their hands on the edges, plunged forward to fish for the fruit – with their teeth.”

In order to succeed at this game, one generally had to submerge their head and neck in the water. For this reason, it was far more popular with the young men than with the young ladies. As Beard states:

“The girls can seldom be induced to try their luck in this game, but usually content themselves with looking on, immensely enjoying the frantic endeavors of the boys to succeed at any cost.”

apples copy fbd94Ducking for Apples on Halloween. The Book of Days, 1832.

Another Halloween party game that a gentleman could play was the game of “Trying for a Raisin.” In this game, a good-sized raisin was strung onto the middle of a yard long cotton string. The two competitors then took one end each of the string into their mouths and began to chew. The first person to reach the raisin was the winner.

And then there was the rather perilous “Apple and Candle” game. The game involved hanging up a stick horizontally by a string and attaching a lit candle to one end and an apple to the other. The Book of Days explains:

“The stick being made to twirl rapidly, the merry-makers in succession leap up and snatch at the apple with their teeth (no use of the hands being allowed), but it very frequently happens that the candle comes round before they are aware, and scorches them in the face, or anoints them with grease.”

Finally, no party was complete without the game that Beard calls “The Ghostly Fire.” In this game, salt and alcohol were put into a dish with a few raisins and lit on fire. When the flame was at its highest, the partygoers linked hands and danced around the table on which the fire burned. Beard writes:

“The dance was not prolonged, for it was our duty, before the fire was spent, to snatch from the flames the raisins we had put in the dish. This can be done, if one is careful, without as much as scorching the fingers, and I never knew of anyone burning themselves while making the attempt.”

Of course, some forms of outdoor Halloween merrymaking were exclusively the province of rowdy young gentlemen. Miller reports a particularly raucous tradition in the North of Scotland:

“After nightfall, the young fellows of the town formed themselves into parties of ten or a dozen, and breaking into the gardens of the graver inhabitants, stole the best and heaviest of their cabbages. Converting these into bludgeons, by stripping off the lower leaves, they next scoured the streets and lanes, thumping at every door as they passed, until their uncouth weapons were beaten to pieces. When disarmed in this way, all the parties united into one, and providing themselves with a cart, drove it before them, with the rapidity of a chaise and four, through the principal streets. Wo to the inadvertent female Whom they encountered!”

lancashire 47672The Incantation. The Lancashire Witches, 1848.

When it came to food and drink at the Victorian Halloween party, sweets were not the primary attraction. According to The Book of Days:

“Nuts and apples are everywhere in requisition, and consumed in immense numbers. Indeed the name of Nutcrack Night, by which Halloween is known in the north of England, indicates the predominance of the former of these articles in making up the entertainments of the evening.”

And in the 1841 Medii Ævi Kalendarium, author R. T. Hampson writes:

“Nuts, ale and apples compose the chief materials of the entertainment on this night…Every house abounds in the best viands they can afford.”

Nuts could be roasted, while apples were often glazed by dipping them in a syrup made of sugar, water, and butter and then browning them on the fire. In addition to fruit, nuts, and ale, there were baked goods to consume. Some of these even played a part in Halloween ritual. An 1891 edition of Ingalls’ Home and Art Magazine provides the following recipe and magical instructions for “Halloween Dumb Cake.” It reads:

“Make according to any good recipe for a plain cake; not a word must be spoken after the work begins; three or four girls beating eggs, measuring, sifting, etc., in perfect silence. When it is poured into the pan, some married lady takes it, and, unobserved, hides in it a ring, a coin, and a button. It is iced thinly and placed in the oven again, after baking, for the icing to brown. When served it is cut into as many pieces as there are guests (unmarried of course). Every branch of the work — secreting the tokens, icing and cutting, must be done in perfect silence. Every slice must be eaten or crumbed in silence until the tokens are found and displayed, when the spell is broken. The finder of the ring will be married first; the coin betokens wealth, while a life of single-blessedness falls to the finder of the button.”

For larger parties, a set menu was sometimes desirable. To this end, Home and Art Magazine offers a “choice bill of fare for a large dancing party.” It includes such autumn favorites as roast turkey and chestnut stuffing.

halloweenmenu copy 2f1a0Menu for a Halloween Party. Ingalls Home and Art Magazine, 1891.

Today, especially in the United States, Halloween is synonymous with costumes and candy. Most of us do not have big country houses in which to hold giant parties. Fear of a lawsuit (and plain old common sense) prevents us from allowing young people to melt lead in our living rooms and city ordinances prohibit us from lighting giant, pagan bonfires in our suburban backyards. However, that does not mean we must forego all Victorian tradition. Some 19th century games are both safe and inexpensive. For those of you who would like to incorporate a few into your upcoming Halloween party, I hope this article has been useful. For those who would like to recreate the riskier Victorian Halloween games, I leave you with the following 1896 newspaper article as a warning:

death copy b0a2e 

Top photo: Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise, 1833.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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