They’re a thing. And a pretty amazing thing. But not what you’d expect.
Goblins, ghoulies, gremlins, even kobolds (for the D&D set) seem pretty standard Halloween faire. But fairies are too, I guess, kindly? Playful? Flitty?
Old school fairies, like the real ones before the Victorians got to them, were dark, odd things, more about mischief and irrationality than dainty flower people. It was normal for them to be the kind of creature you’d want to appease but also avoid, making sure it knew you were happy to leave out some milk or food for it. But you really didn’t want it coming into your house, spoiling your goods or stealing your babies.
The Victorians made them all pastoral and flowery and dumb. Tolkien tried to restore some majesty and mystery but, let’s be honest, to most people, fairies are a pretty goofy thing. (Not to me, mind you…just talking cultural imagination.)
With that said, though, to see them in Halloween cards is a really odd mixture. Even when they’re goofy and funny, Halloween cards are supposed to have a dose “spooky” to them, even if it’s all in fun. But to plant a gossamer-winged fairy in a Halloween card and to mix them up with goblins and trouble-causing creatures is downright…appropriate. Or at least it is if you see fairies as truly otherworldly creatures, not just a kind of image of childhood innocence.
And yet they were all over the cards from the late 1800’s up through mid 19th century. Sometimes they were mixed up with other “sprites” and “goblins,” but other times, like the card up above, you just had full on little fairy girls with something about “Halloween” slapped on top of them.
There are other people way better qualified than me to talk about the categories of elf, fairy, goblin, sprite, imp, etc., but the point here is that when you put these images of a kind of magical “innocence” in a Halloween card, you’re doing something subversive. You’re mixing up your magical realms, confusing the “good” and “evil” (or at least “innocent” and “mischief-making”) sides of these legends in a way I find fascinating.
My favorite of all of them has to be this card:
There are so many things I love: The mix of beauty and control in her expression. The happiness in her face and hair but the bats to suggest darkness. The way she’s both a witch (with the broom) but a fairy with the suggestion of wings and the mystery of the whirlwind (and the caption). Combine that with the general mood of just not knowing anything about what she’s doing, and it’s simply an amazing card, one I’ve been trying to find for real, but I only have the image.
Plenty more Halloween fairy cards exist, and some of them obviously mix up the sinister goblin with the fairy and elf terminology. And I don’t think there’s a real mythology to pin down here, although I’m sure someone will suggest something Celtic. But the point is, they make a wonderfully fitting incongruity. And that’s the vibe I love.