This post was written by Dara.
While I was archive diving on Lauren’s site, I ran across the blog post where she mentions that even though she calls this her “Halloween” book, they didn’t really celebrate Halloween in Regency era in any way the resembles our celebrations today. It made me curious about what the celebration of Hallows Eve (from where we get the word Halloween) would have looked like.
The night of October 31st as one filled with ghoolies and ghosts and things that go bump in the night goes well back in England’s history; most say it has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) – the bonfire festival of summer’s end at which the veil between the seen and unseen worlds was at its thinnest and the past and present merged. It was commonly believed that on this night the dead could walk the world of the living and many went so far as to leave doors and windows open and food out for the dead to enjoy the festival as well. The poor would often walk the streets chanting a song and many would give them special loaves of flat bread called Dirge Cakes. Those who did not hand out loaves might find themselves the recipient of a prank or vandalism then next morning. And of course, since you didn’t know what might come through the veil to your house, many people disguised themselves to trick an malevolent creatures wandering the night.
When the Romans conquered Britain and drove the Celts to Scotland and Ireland, many of these traditions went with them, and in England the Romans co-opted the celebration, adding to it the celebration of Pomona, their goddess of fruit trees. When Christianity came to England, the religious attempted to replace the Samhain celebration with an all night vigil called Hallomas leading to the the celebration of All Soul’s Day, a time to remember those who had passed on to heaven, on November 1. As a result of this, by the time we reach Rengency era, most of the traditional activities associated with Samhain were only practiced by the lower classes in rural areas (though the going house to house for cakes was retained, as people would go door to door asking for soul cakes to pray for those in Purgatory).
Activities that country folk might have used in their celebrations include bobbing for apples, bonfires (either to guide good souls to heaven or to scare them away from the living), asking for soul cakes, and carving turnip lanterns (pumpkins don’t grown in England). I don’t know about you, but I get a really hysterical mental image of the locals chasing Turnip around trying to catch him and carve him!
For more information about the complex evolution of Halloween in the British Isles, check out http://www.janeausten.co.uk/all-hallows-eve/ and http://historicalhussies.blogspot.com/2011/10/regency-halloween.html.