Archives For Holiday

The History of Halloween

Although people around the world view Halloween as a thoroughly American holiday, it has a far more complicated story than that. In fact, Halloween is a mash-up of ancient Celtic paganism, early Roman Catholicism, nineteenth-century American immigration, modern suburbanism and commercialism, and much, much more.

It all started about two thousand years ago, when the ancient Celts made sacrifices around sacred bonfires in celebration of the harvest’s end. Think of this as the moment the earth makes its transition from abundant autumnal life to silent wintry death, and—perhaps—a moment when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead are blurred.

When the Roman Empire sprawled into Celtic lands in 43 AD and remained there for the next four hundred years, it mingled culturally with existing pagan rites. After the Roman Empire took on Christianity as its official religion in 313 AD, rather than continue the Celts’ tradition of honoring ancestral spirits, the Church focused instead on honoring religious martyrs. Sometime in the 8th century, the pope named November 1 “All Saints’ Day,” the Middle English term for which was “All-hallowmas.” The night before, October 31, became known as All-hallows Eve—today’s Halloween.

A few particulars of the Celtic and Catholic celebrations stand out as familiar to us today. The Celts left out food and wine as offerings for the dead in order to appease them and prevent them from entering their homes—think of it as the earliest form of trick-or-treating, except instead of little children in colorful costumes arriving at the door, it would be a spirit with malicious intent. This practice of food offerings was replaced later in the Christianized version of the holiday by “soul cakes,” food given to the poor rather than to the dead. “Going a-souling” became a child-friendly activity within a community where beggars would go from door to door to receive food or alms.

Dressing up has early roots as well. Fearful they would encounter evil spirits on this unusual night, people wore masks to conceal their faces and stay safely unrecognized. Also, the “trick” in trick-or-treat owes its presence to a centuries-old history of pranks and jokes—perhaps a reference to the kinds of acts people feared from spirits on their one, restless night back among the living. These Halloween pranksters also wore masks to conceal their identities—except this time they would have been more concerned with being recognized by the living. And finally, the harvest has always contributed greatly to the All-hallows Eve atmosphere, with games, parties, and superstitions involving autumn produce such as apples, turnips, and nuts.

Student Halloween party at the University of Southern California, ca. 1890. USC History Collection.

Student Halloween party at the University of Southern California, ca. 1890. USC History Collection.

A Halloween dinner in Vermont, ca. 1900. The Poultney Historical Society.

A Halloween dinner in Vermont, ca. 1900. The Poultney Historical Society.

 

Halloween in America

So how did these traditions migrate from the British Isles to America? An intense period of immigration in the mid-nineteenth century (a period that gave Chicago—and other major cities—its historic Irish, Italian, German, and Swedish neighborhoods) brought Old World traditions to a new country. Millions of Irish in particular, fleeing the potato famine of 1846, had inherited the blended Celtic-Roman tradition of celebrating the dead, and helped make Halloween an American tradition by the end of the nineteenth century, during the period known as the Gilded Age. House parties and celebrations in Irish- or Scottish-American homes often included retellings of legends from the old country or a reading of Robert Burns’s poem ”Halloween.” They influenced their neighbors to join the fun of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food, treats, and money. And of course, pranks abounded as well, mainly harmless ones such as taking a neighbor’s gate off its hinges. 

People in the Gilded Age were also fascinated with death. Group séances, spiritualist mediums, and sentimental memento mori were all wildly popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other, more frightening tales of the era reveled in the possibility that the dead may return to earth and speak to the living. This existing trend in the cultural imagination may have made people more receptive to Halloween taking root in American life.

 

Howard Chandler Christy, Halloween, 1915.

Howard Chandler Christy, Halloween, 1915.

1930s newspaper headline in The Oregonian, in which columnist Marian Miller advocating for a safer Halloween holiday. To read the full article, click here.

1930s newspaper headline in The Oregonian, in which columnist Marian Miller advocating for a safer Halloween holiday. To read the full article, click here.

The Gilded Age was, if anything, an age of industry in America. The rise of factories, railroad networks, mining operations, and commercial farming defined an era of unprecedented economic prosperity. Between innovative industrial processes in factories and extra spending money at home, the commercial delights of Halloween were soon as much a staple as the old traditions. The first producer of candy corn, a sugary nod to autumnal harvest, was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia in the 1880s. Dennison Manufacturing Company published its first catalog for Halloween decorations and stationary, including tips for holiday entertaining, in 1909.

After the turn of the century, the Gilded Age faded into the Progressive Era. In the same spirited mood of reform that would address public issues and fears such as sanitation, poverty, and alcohol consumption, some Americans agitated for change. They wanted to steer the focus of the Halloween holiday away from the dark, superstitious—and, many felt, sacrilegious—spirits and witches of its Celtic roots. They also feared the increasing intensity of pranks and tricks, which could take on the destructive quality of vandalism, especially where other tensions were present. (A late example comes from 1933, when at the height of the Great Depression young men overturned cars, sawed down telephone poles, and taunted the police.) Newspapers urged people to eliminate the grotesque elements of the holiday in favor of fun games that wouldn’t frighten. Accordingly, traditions like parades and parties increasingly focused on children. In the boom that followed World War II, the mass production of candy and costumes added to the storebought goodies that had begun in the Gilded Age. And so, slowly, Halloween evolved into the not-so-spooky, family-friendly, neighborhood holiday it is today.

 

Resources
History.com, “History of Halloween” http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween
NPR.org, “Halloween for Adults: A Scary Story” http://www.npr.org/sections/theprotojournalist/2014/10/29/359547119/halloween-for-adults-a-scary-history
HistoricUK.com, “Halloween.” http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Halloween/
Edwardian Promenade, “Halloween in the Gilded Age.” http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/amusements/halloween-in-the-gilded-age/ 

During the Gilded Age, the American traditions of New Year’s Eve started to transition from the folk celebrations of immigrants to the elaborate soirees we are more familiar with today, especially for those of a certain class.

New Year’s Eve in Chicago and at the Nickerson Mansion

Chicagoans in the Gilded Age celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a similar manner to the way many Americans do today.  The week leading up to New Year’s was full of entertainment, with society leaders like Bertha Palmer and Matilda Nickerson hosting grand New Year’s Eve events where guests danced in the New Year to music played by Johnny Hand’s Orchestra, Gilded Age Chicago’s favorite bandleader.

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,”. September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of  giving a party until they knew if they could get Johnny Hand to play.”

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,” September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of giving a party until they knew if they could get
Johnny Hand to play.”

In 1890, the Nickerson’s “Marble Palace” was the site of a lavish New Year’s Eve Reception. The guest list of over sixty-five included the children of neighbors and other prominent Chicago families from both the North and South sides.  The Nickersons followed the common practice of featuring elaborate floral arrangements at receptions.  The marble hall was “decorated with calla lilies” and “the centre-piece on the dining-room table consisted of a bank of delicate pink carnations on a background of maiden-hair ferns.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Children Make Merry,” January 1, 1891).

The Chicago Daily Tribune, "Mrs. Nickerson's Party," January 1, 1891.

The Chicago Daily Tribune, “Mrs. Nickerson’s Party,” January 1, 1891.

Dressing Up for New Year’s Eve 

Just as it is customary today to wear something with plenty of glitz and glamour, guests also wore fashion-forward designs in the Gilded Age to New Year’s Eve events. Men wore formal “white tie” dress with black tailcoats while women donned glamorous evening gowns often designed by the preeminent House of Worth in Paris, and received great attention in the society pages of the newspapers.  According to one account, Bertha Palmer wore a “black velvet gown, the bodice studded with diamonds, and a diamond tiara in her hair” at her New Year’s Eve cotillion (“In the Society World,” January 6, 1901).

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer. From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer.
From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

New Year’s Eve at the Mansions of Newport

Newport, Rhode Island was home to some of the most fabulous mansions of the Gilded Age.  Although initially established as a quiet summer retreat for the newly-wealthy, as the nineteenth century progressed, Newport became a center for the affluent to gather not only during the summer but also during the winter holiday season.  New York society elites, like the Vanderbilts and Astors, threw lavish New Year’s Eve receptions and hosted sumptuous New Year’s Day events reflective of their newly established social status.  Newport celebrations continued to rise in prominence and eventually society reporters began travelling from New York City to cover these spectacular events. While across the nation prominent families of the Gilded Age hosted exclusive and extravagant New Year’s events, Newport was one of the most popular destinations.

Celebrating With Champagne

When attending a New Year’s Eve reception, guests enjoyed novel party favors, refreshments featuring the “delicacies of the season,” a light super (often featuring en vogue French cuisine) at midnight, and plenty of champagne.

moet-chandon

Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon,” December 16, 1901.

French Champagne became a popular drink among wealthy Americans who enjoyed the perceived sophistication of the drink and its intoxicating effects. Beginning in the 1870s, Americans consumed champagne in “astonishing” large quantities and would often pay exorbitant prices for the imported beverage (champagne was subject to import taxes).  In 1894, for example, Americans imported over 70,000 cases of champagne, a significantly greater amount than just twenty-five years before (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Champagne Drank in This Country,” February 24, 1894). Etiquette manuals gave advice on how to host a “bachelor” Champagne supper, and champagne was the drink of choice for celebratory toasts- including on New Year’s Eve. French Brands such as Moët & Chandon catered to the luxury market, with advertisements persuading Chicagoans that the “ablest excerpts” pronounced the brand to be “without question, far superior in quality to any other brands” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon ‘White Seal’ Champagne,” May 1, 1900).

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

New Year’s festivities during the Gilded Age reflected the evolving expectations of celebrations, from the lavish receptions of the wealthy to the café and dancehall revelries of the middle and working classes.  Although at the time celebrating with champagne would have been reserved for society’s elite, champagne is a nearly obligatory part of New Year’s Eve rituals today. We still associate champagne with social status, sophistication, and prosperity. So when you raise your glass of champagne to usher in the New Year, you are making a gesture that is a nod to the past, while also celebrating the future New Year and all of its possibilities.

Sources:

Top image: Wikipedia

Chertoff, Emily. “How Rich People Celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Gilded Age.” The Atlantic. (2012). http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/how-rich-people-celebrated-new-years-eve-in-the-gilded-age/266663/.

Glover, Ellye Howell. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1909.

Sengstock, Charles A., Jr. That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

mainimage
This time of year we all have our favorite holiday traditions that help us get into the spirit of the season.   Below, we are happy to share with you some of the experiences that those of us  who are a part of the Driehaus Museum enjoy most!  We hope you enjoy and wish you a very Happy Holiday Season!

adele_forweb

Adele Friedman, Museum Member

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“The Driehaus Museum glows in December. When entering, I feel I am transported to another era, and for the time that I am there, I am surrounded by the preeminent craftsmanship and artistry that its time had to offer, elegantly restored and displayed. During the holidays, the Museum is decorated and lit to enhance this experience, to present the very best of December in Chicago.”

beth1_web

Beth Milasius, Guest Services Manager

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“My favorite holiday program at the Museum is Santa Saturday: seeing the children’s faces light up when they see Santa is so magical!”

What is your favorite holiday tradition in Chicago?
“My favorite Chicago holiday tradition is Zoo Lights at Lincoln Park Zoo.  Families are laughing together and entranced by the shapes of the trees and lights.  Seeing the animals at night add to the specialness of the night.”

margie_web

Margie Gaskin, Museum Volunteer

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“I like the carolers out on the front porch.  I had taken my granddaughter to see Annie a few years ago and we walked home and heard them for the first time. It was magical, we loved it and we received the candy canes. It was such a perfect moment.”


What is your favorite holiday tradition in Chicago?

“My favorite Chicago tradition is the festival of lights on Michigan Avenue. I love that it’s a family event. I love the decorations in all the neighborhoods, the lights and the way all the buildings decorate.”

amy1_web

Amy Cole, Museum Guide

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“I love the tradition of the decorations and having the carolers and having James Cebastien play [the piano on Sundays in December]. I like the overall ambiance during the season.”

What is your favorite holiday tradition in Chicago?
“We have gone to the German Christmas market at Daley Plaza for years. I have enjoyed going to the Lincoln Park Conservatory to see their train set up traveling through Chicago landmarks made with all natural materials like twigs and seeds. Chicago is beautiful with all the lights.”

susan1_webSusan Slogoff, Museum Guide

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“My favorite Driehaus holiday tradition is Santa Saturdays. Yes it’s hectic and a bit crazy at the museum those Saturdays, but the kids are having so much fun that it’s infectious…and I love working in the arts and crafts area with them.”

What is your favorite holiday tradition in Chicago?
“My favorite holiday tradition in Chicago occurs annually at the Arboretum and at the Botanic Gardens. The outdoor light shows at the Arboretum are vast and magical, and the Botanic Gardens has a special indoor display of Chicago neighborhood buildings created over the years out of natural plant materials. Antique trains run overhead as you walk through the displays, and there’s hot chocolate while you visit the other lighting displays. I try not to miss these two places each year.”

jamie_webJamie Herndon, Operations and Administrative Manager

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“My favorite holiday tradition at the Museum, is the Member Open House, it’s a great way to see our members, catch up and talk about our favorite things that happened at the Museum over the last year.”

What is your favorite holiday tradition in Chicago?
“My favorite holiday tradition in Chicago is FOR SURE the Santa Train.”

catherine1_webCatherine Laraia, Collections and Exhibitions Coordinator

What is your favorite holiday tradition in the Museum?
“Having the Dining Room table for a 5-course holiday meal.”

What is your favorite holiday tradition in Chicago?
“The Santa train off the Red Line!”