A New Year’s Haunting: The Victorian Ghost Party Craze

Dec 31, 2022 | 2022 Articles, Hometown History, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sarah Peterson-Camacho

by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho

As frost and fog envelop the Central Valley in the ghostly shroud of winter, thoughts drift inward to the warmth of family, home, and the holidays. But as the Christmas tree is lit and the New Year rung in with loved ones, the season’s longest, darkest nights recall a time when ghost stories and spooky soirees were the otherworldly order of the day.

For as saturated in death culture as the 19th and early 20th centuries were—from the Civil War to the advent of World War I, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and beyond—it is no wonder that the Victorian era gave birth to the Spiritualism movement: Victorian mourning customs and rituals and the holiday tradition of telling ghost stories.

With the runaway success and popularity of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843, the association of the supernatural with the holidays took root in the public imagination, spawning not only a winter storytelling tradition, but also a macabre new way to celebrate the season.

ghost“Ghost parties are prevalent in Auburn now-a-days,” reported The Weekly Trinity Journal of Weaverville, California, in April of 1870, in the first-ever mention of a ghostly social gathering not tied to Halloween.

By 1872, ghost parties were popping up across the Midwest as an antidote to the winter doldrums, homespun affairs featuring skull-shaped tickets, sheet-and-pillowcase costumes, and “skeleton turkey” suppers. (“They cheer,” 1872)

California’s capital city took the morbid phenomenon to the next level when Sacramento’s Pavilion Skating Rink hosted a ghoulish winter extravaganza in 1876 (“Ghost Party,” 1876), but it wasn’t until the mid-1880s that the very first New Year’s ghost party was held in Greenville, Alabama. (“The young people of Greenville” 1884)

Putting the party trend on the map in 1891, household journal The Art Interchange featured “careful instructions for carrying out…a New Year’s ghost party” in its January issue, making party hostesses everywhere sit up and take notice. One of them, New York society maven Linda Hull Larned, took the home-entertaining world by storm with the publication of 1899’s The Hostess of To-day, which helped spark the haunted holiday celebration’s high-end renaissance.

Dec. 18, 1904, issue of “The San Francisco Examiner.” 

“Some people hold to the notion that the realm of spirits is only separated from that of mortals by a veil,” wrote Larned in The San Francisco Examiner, on Sunday, December 18, 1904, “and to a favored few, the veil is transparent.”

By the winter of 1904, the newest New Year’s party trend had hit the West Coast in a snowstorm of white cheesecloth: Larned’s go-to material for any self-respecting ghost. From the costumes to the party décor, the author advocated for a veritable blizzard of the filmy gauze to drape every conceivable surface.

A masquerade ball of sorts, Larned’s spectral soiree called for each swathed guest to wear a blood-red number for a ghostly guessing game just before a “phantom white” supper accompanied by a wassail bowl of hot, spiced wine, around which tiny skeletons were to be perched, “as though fishing in the bowl for lost souls.” (“The wassail cup was originally the skull of an enemy,” noted the Victorian-era Martha Stewart.)

And of course, there were to be ghost stories, once the disguises had been discarded and the spirited appetites sated, told in the twilit gloom of blue-shaded lamps, lit only by basins of burning alcohol. (“But be careful of fire!”) And accompanying the tales of terror was to be an orchestra of musicians concealed behind a screen of cheesecloth, their music “muffled and doleful.”

“You are asked to meet the departing spirits of the year at a wraith reunion.” So read the black-bordered invitation received by one Mrs. Grace Griscom, printed on Victorian mourning stationery usually reserved for announcing a death in the family.

By the time New Year’s Day of 1905 dawned in the Central Valley, a decidedly darker, more gothic ghost party had descended upon the city of Fresno.

Jan. 1, 1905, issue of “The Fresno Morning Republican”

“The guests, upon entering the home of this hostess on New Year’s Eve,” wrote Griscom in The Fresno Morning Republican of Sunday, January 1, 1905, “found the hall draped in black and lighted very sparingly with candles … Upon parting the curtains, a scene of stygian gloom was disclosed. Walls were hung with black, and to lighten up the surrounding horrors, there were a weird moon and a few sickly stars …”

Draping the doorways and fixtures like a bayou graveyard, Spanish moss hung low and wispy as a giant spider swung from the chandelier. A towering python coiled in the gloom.

“The real shivers of the evening began upon greeting the hostess,” Griscom continued, “who was gowned in ghostly gray, flowing draperies. As each guest greeted her, a series of shrieks was heard, for her hand came off in the friendly grasp.”

A trio of cackling witches presided over a bubbling cauldron, which was lit from within with burning alcohol. Uttering incantations in the flickering light, they foretold what the new year had in store for each guest.

“Another game of ‘creeps’ was carried out in the following fashion. The company gathered about a large, round table and someone appointed for the task handed all kinds of shaky, shivery objects underneath it. These were passed from one guest to another.” Squeamish partygoers could barely handle each slimy, oozing item without squealing.

Dec. 18, 1904, issue of “The San Francisco Examiner.” 

Every member of the party was tasked with sharing a ghost story, but before the second tale had gotten underway, a flock of full-bodied apparitions descended upon the startled group, hovering in a cloud of “floating gray stuff,” before disappearing as suddenly as they had materialized.

At half past eleven, guests were treated to a very late supper: a funereal feast of dishes usually served after someone had died, spread across a table covered in “a pall of funeral black,” crawling with animated fake spiders and worms.

But at the stroke of midnight, “just as things were getting rather too intense and the spookiness too spooky, a peal of bells broke the spell. Light flooded the room,” revealing a lavish buffet of delicacies, minus the creepy-crawlies, adorned with sprays of blood-red Christmas flowers accented with holly and mistletoe.

“The hostess then announced a truce to the old war of spirits,” Griscom concluded, “and a goodby to her guests.”

The popularity of the New Year’s ghost party remained steady throughout the early 1900s, but by the eve of America’s entry into World War I, the trend had all but ‘given up the ghost.’

Perhaps by then, with the gathering storm clouds of influenza and trench warfare looming on the horizon, death had proven to be all too real.

Works Cited
“The Stars and Stripes…” The Weekly Trinity Journal, Saturday, April 16, 1870, p. 3.
“They cheer…” The Boston Globe, Wednesday, March 20, 1872, p. 6.
“Ghost Party.” The Sacramento Bee, Saturday, March 25, 1876, p. 3.
“The young people of Greenville…” The Greenville Advocate, Wednesday, January 2, 1884, p. 5.
“The Art Interchange…” The Los Angeles Evening Express, Saturday, January 10, 1891, p. 4.
Larned, Linda Hull. “A ‘Ghost Party’ for Christmas Eve—and What It Is Like.” The San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, December 18, 1904, p. 52.
Gricom, Grace. “How to Spend New Year’s Day.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Sunday, January 1, 1905, p. 15.

Sarah A. Peterson-Camachois a library assistant with Fresno County Library, with a Bachelor’s in English and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from California State University, Fresno. In her free time, she makes soap and jewelry that she sells at Fresno-area craft fairs. She has written for The Clovis Roundup and the Central California Paranormal Investigators (CCPI) Newsletter.


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