Scary Brooklyn: Recalling Halloween in old Brooklyn
History Of A Day
While the Celtic priests may have originated Halloween centuries ago, Brooklyn has assisted in making the day before All Saints’ Day, aka All Hallows Day, a national costumed event. Of course, it starts with creative types fashioning their individual outfits months before the leaves spin from the trees.
Wasn’t always so. As you may have suspected, the day had religious associations related to the good guys (Christians) against the Bad Guy (The Devil). Victorian Brooklynites saw the day as an introduction to the holiday season. And they had to be more creative than today; they couldn’t just go shopping at Ricky’s.
As today, they had parties to celebrate; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed announcements of dinner parties sometimes lasting until dawn, suggesting they were wilder as well as longer than today’s festivities. In 1921, a Ladies’ Night Halloween Party at The Bossert featured costumes and prizes. Presumably the guests escorted the goblins home to the strains of “Danse Macabre.”
Pumpkins with faces rather than harder turnips were introduced in 1837. Apples, fresh or candied, remain the fruit of the season; to the Celts, they represented immortality. At parties, people still bob for apples in a tub or try to bite one swinging from a string — with their hands tied behind their backs. But there’s more. Ads in the Eagle offer sales on nuts and raisins. One game was to snatch burning raisins from a fire; another involved pouring melted lead into a pan of water to tell fortunes.
Here’s a challenge: walk down stairs backwards holding a lit candle above your head.
Customs and superstitions traveled here with immigrants. “Mumming,” or dancing, came from Germany and Scandinavia and the “day of the dead” from Mexico. The goblins we hear about originated in Scotland; they were known as “bogies,” which we translated into “boogie man.” And taking a Halloween pill before bed — grated coconut, a small bit of cheese and a few drops of honey on a walnut — might give a woman pleasant dreams and a gentle lover. Or a nightmare and a highwayman.
Even in the 19th century, tricks were played on “mischief night.” Then there were the hayrides, haunted houses, cemetery tours (at Green-Wood) and parades. The largest and most popular today, the Village Parade, began in 1974. But Brooklyn has its share in Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Coney Island, Greenpoint and other neighborhoods.
In the 1930s, the costume of choice was the “ragamuffin” look. Children dressed as homeless bums and begged for candy and pennies. Originally celebrated on Thanksgiving, it moved to Halloween, according to Ted General of the Home Reporter as reported in The New York Times “FYI” column. The Ragamuffin Parade, named for the costume, is still held in Bay Ridge but takes place earlier in October.
Ghost stories told in front of a glowing fireplace stimulated the imagination. If a single woman needed protection of a husband, she ate an apple in front of a long mirror and her future husband would look over her shoulder. Girls could also jump over three cups to see how soon they would marry. If all else failed, she should place three walnuts on the grate of a fireplace, naming two after her favorite boyfriends and the third after herself. If a nut cracks from the heat, that lover would be unfaithful; if it burns, he is interested; if hers burns with another, they will marry.
If all else fails, wet the sleeve of a shirt and hang it by the fire to dry while lying in bed watching it until midnight. At the witching hour, an apparition of the future mate will enter the room and turn the sleeve.
Halloween of old also presented a serious side of the celebration. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, wrote “Halloween” while Sir Walter Scott wrote “The Monastery.” In America, we not only have horror movies, but also the short story about the undead by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook.” That was before gentrification.
In 1901, a holiday program at the Prospect Lyceum featured an address, a reading, a musical specialty, “humorisms” and a choral presentation followed by supper: soup, sandwiches, salad and dessert. Games followed. At the Knickerbocker Club in Flatbush, a play, “Halloween and Candlelight,” set in Boston in 1776, was presented. And the Young Men’s Hebrew Association held its second annual ball at Eckford Hall.
The pages of the Eagle reveal their own ghost story; a few lines from a poem written by “Geraldine” published in 1865 are excerpted here:
“The wind whistled louder, and fearfully shrill,
And louder it grew, over mountain and hill,
‘Twas a deed that was worthy of notice, remark,
On Halloween Night, to go forth after dark….”
A young lady wanders through the woods when “Oh, horrors! She certainly hears coming feet….” But “no kind hand to help her — so helpless and frail,” she arrives at a door. “It quickly is opened — and she falls to the ground.”
“Those locks that were raven, are frosty white.
Through the terrors and woes of that horrible night;
Those cheeks, once so beauteous, their roses have paled,
And her buoyant young spirit with terror is quailed….”
But the moral of this tale lies in the last verse.
“You may look for those scenes, but ‘twill soon be in vain;
They are passing away — they return not again…
…But they too are gliding; this joy will not last;
And stories and legends be dreams of the past.”
So even long ago, the spirit of Halloween seemed to drift away into ghostly forgetfulness.
© 2016 John B. Manbeck
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