Thursday, October 3, 2019

VI - Halloween Costumes, Mummers, and Soulers

Dressing in costumes can be traced back almost 2000 years. There are several different theories. However, the ones I could find all sounded familiar.

There is the Celts' Ancient Samhain festival held on All Hallows Eve. It was their belief that it was the one day spirits could walk on the Earth. In order to hide or confuse the evil spirits, they dressed as ghosts or wore masks. Part of their custom was to also leave food and drink outside their doors, hoping that would satisfy the spirits and they would move on.

There was the custom of 'Souling', practiced by Christians in Europe in the 5th century. On the eve of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve) groups of the poor would go from house to house begging for food. They would be given 'soul cakes'. In return they would say prayers to save the souls of the departed family members of the home, ergo the term 'Souling'.

Originally the 'cakes' were any sweets the housewives had around the house. Then it became small cakes and pastries. Traditional 'Soul Cakes' are still made today. The ingredients include nutmeg, Cinnamon, Cardamon, Currants, and Saffron together with flour, eggs, milk and butter. 
Image result for halloween soul cakes
As time went on, children ('Soulers') started dressing in costumes going from house to house singing and begging for 'Soul Cakes', fruit, or even money. The Soulers would ask for 'mercy on all Christian souls' for a soul cake.  Reference to this was mentioned in 1593 by Shakespeare in his play The Two Gentlemen from Verona.

Later on, 'Guising' was included in the 'All Hallows Eve' tradition. This term refers to people in disguise (costumes) singing and asking for food. Once again the disguises the 'Soulers' wore were thought to keep the evil spirits at bay. 'Mummers'  were amatuer actors who performed small plays. Another story implies that the 'mummers' and 'guisers' were personifying the spirits of winter. The food, as a reward, would bring about good fortune for the home. All Hallows Eve was the last day the spirits could roam the earth, given the following day was All Saints Day.

The first record of 'guising' in America dates back to 1911. Halloween (as it was now called) became a private holiday rather than a public one due to the Victorians morality, given the celebrations involved liquor. That said, the Victorians tried to make it a festival for children dressed in costumes with parades. Costumes for the children at the time were ghosts, witches, and Gothic figures - all homemade. On the other hand, Victorian adults were interested in ‘exotic’ costumes with themes from the Far East and the Orient. Examples are Egyptian Princesses or Arabian Princes.

Of the many best loved traditions in America, the donning of costumes is at the top of the list. In times past, adults began dressing in elaborate costumes for Halloween parties, also known as Masquerade parties, long before it became an annual event for children. Dressing up in Halloween costumes took a more commercial tone in the twentieth century. 

Mass-produced paper costumes hit stores between the 1900s and the 1920s. Disposable paper costumes made way for boxed character costumes in the 1930s and '40s.

These first costumes had scary and supernatural themes vampires, ghosts, witches, devils, and werewolves. In the 1920s clowns were popular.
Image result for 1960s tv character halloween costumes

Television defined popular culture in the 1950s, and Halloween costumes followed suit.
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Halloween costume parties generally take place on or around October 31 for both adults and children. Believe it or not, Halloween parties are the 3rd most popular type of party held in Western countries, falling only behind the Super Bowl & New Year's Eve. Keep in mind the $6 billion in candy sales and fact that costumes for children alone is a $1.2 billion industry.

Given the modern Halloween holiday's roots go back to the old Celtic holiday, Samhain, and the belief for that one night spirits could walk the Earth, there is little wonder why Halloween costumes traditionally have had a creepy, spooky, or even down-right frightening appearance. Hollywood movies also played a part in the popularity of the holiday. An example was Bela Lugosi who brought Count Vampire to life on the screen, as well as others. The idea of the "creepy' Halloween continued from its Samhain roots. Scary vampires, wicked witches, frightening werewolves, and ghosts could be seen everywhere the one night. There is also the fact that dressing in costumes gives everyone the chance to have fun 'being someone else'.

Soon the choice of costumes went further than the scary and macabre. Pirates, fairies, clowns, , and superheroes started ringing doorbells along with the witches and werewolves. The costumes started following the popular culture of the times. And, modern Halloween wasn't just an American 'thing', it was also very popular in Canada and throughout Europe.

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