Saturday, October 31, 2009

Regency Halloween

Halloween as we know it today was not really a holiday during the Regency. On October 31, the Celts celebrated Samhain, a harvest festival which contained some elements of a festival of the dead. The Christian religion attempted to neutralize the pagan Samhain by combining it with Christian holy days. November 1 was All Saints' Day, or All Hallows Day, so October 31 became All Hallows' Eve.

By the Regency, All Hallows' Eve was mainly a rural festival, rarely noticed in the cities. Elements of Samhain remained in the customs of guising, lighting bonfires, and carving jack o' lanterns.

On Samhain, the barriers between the real world and the supernatural world thinned, allowing the dead, as well as evil spirits, to walk the earth. People left their doors open to welcome the ghosts of their ancestors inside, while at the same time keeping the evil ones out. An associate custom was guising, in which people dressed as ghouls. By blending in with the demons, they avoided them.

Bonfires were also popular on all Hallows' Eve. The fires lit the way to the afterworld of relatives who had died during the past year. They also scared the specters and goblins away.

Carving jack o' lanterns was another custom. Believing the "head" of a vegetable its most potent part, the Celts carved vegetables into heads with faces to scare away supernatural beings. By Regency times, these lighted vegetables were called jack o' lanterns from the seventeenth century Irish legend of Shifty, or Stingy, Jack. Shifty Jack, so evil neither Heaven or Hell would take him, was doomed forever to wander the earth while carrying a lantern.

The lantern was usually carved from a turnip or mangelwurzel, as pumpkins were largely unknown in Britain at the time.

Since turnips and mangelwurzels are dense, not hollow like pumpkins, carving such a jack o' lantern was a great deal of effort.

The beginnings of many of today's Halloween practices existed in the Regency. If you enjoy Regency and Halloween, you might like Pumpkinnapper, my Regency Halloween comedy.

Pumpkin thieves, a youthful love rekindled, and a jealous goose. Oh my!

Buy link here.

Happy Halloween!

Thank you all,


P.S. The top picture is Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833, of a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland. Pictures from Wikipedia.


Lindsay Townsend said...

Fascinating info re turnips, Linda. Beautiful picture!

Happy halloween!

One old English custom round halloween was bobbing for apples. And if you wanted a clue for your future husband, maids would peel an apple and flip the peel over their shoulder. The letter it fell in would be the first letter of their future mate's name.

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Lindsay.

I've heard variations on the custom of apples and finding out who your future husband would be. Maybe next time it's a post on Halloween customs.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Sounds good to me, Linda.

Savanna Kougar said...

Linda, oh, that was delightful info about Regency Samhain celebrations and fit in perfectly with some other Halloween history I investigated recently,
I don't know about the Regency period, however, earlier, hearth fires were lit, then extinguished to end the year, then brought to life again, to bring in the new year.

Lindsay Townsend said...

That's fascinating, Savanna and fits with the whole turn of the year thing. Also the bonfires we have over in the UK. All these traditions are intriguing.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, that's what I thought since you'd mentioned the tradition of having bonfires.

Linda Banche said...

Hi Savanna, glad you enjoyed the post. I like Halloween in all its forms.