Halloween in the Regency

Or not.   In fact, it depended upon the part of the British Isles in which one lived whether, or how, that particular holy day eve was recognized and/or celebrated.

Halloween has ancient roots as a pagan new year and harvest celebration which was later combined with Christian holy days to create the autumn season which came to be known as Allhallowtide. But where, and by who, was Halloween or Allhallowtide celebrated during the Regency? And how appropriate were many of those celebrations to romance?

Prior to merging with Christian holy days of the autumn, the holiday now known as Halloween had its primary source in the Celtic festival of Samhain (usually pronounced sow-an). Samhain was the end of the summer and thus also the beginning of winter. The days were growing shorter, the crops had to be gathered and the gods shown proper appreciation for their bounty. It was the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. In one of the most significant rituals of Samhain, on that eve, all members of the community would extinguish their hearth fires before sunset. That night, the Druid priests would then ignite a large bonfire from which each household would take an ember back to their home to re-kindle their hearth fire for anther year.

Samhain was also an important time of social and legislative administration. It was on this day that all taxes were due, all debts were to be paid and all trials were held. However, this festival was much more than just business. At this time of great plenty, there was also great feasting and drinking, followed by loud and rowdy celebrations which continued long into the night. Dancing and singing around the blazing bonfire, which held the darkness at bay before the oncoming winter, was a common feature of Samhain festivities.

Because of its place between two seasons and two years, Samhain was also a special time of year which was believed to have supernatural aspects. During this time, it was understood that the door between this world and the next opened. The dead were able to pass back into this world, should they have business here. Those among the living who did not care to encounter certain of the dead that night painted their faces or found other ways to disguise their appearance in the hope of being overlooked. Also on that night, creatures called sidh, or fairies, were free to cross over from their realm in to this one in order to bedevil humankind. A wide variety of mystical and magical rituals were performed in the hope of protecting against their mischief.

The festival of Samhain was not widely celebrated in England, where few Celts lived. However, it was celebrated by the Celtic peoples of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man. It was also celebrated by the Celts of Brittany, on the northwest tip of France. These celebrations continued right into the Middle Ages. Early in the fifth century, Pope Gregory I directed an abbot en route to convert the Celts that their indigenous celebrations should not be stamped out, but rather, they should be merged into the existing holy days of the Christian calendar in order to garner more converts. During the eighth century, Pope Gregory III decreed that 1 November was to be the day on which the lives of all saints were celebrated. A century later, Pope Gregory IV made it an official holy day of the Catholic Church. In the next century, the following day, 2 November, was made the feast of All Soul’s. It was on that day that all Christians were to pray for those souls who had not yet made it to Heaven and were still trapped in Purgatory.

As the second millenia began, many of the Samhain revels still continued, but under a new name. The night before the Christian feast of All Saint’s, that is, all those made holy or "hallowed" by the Church, was by then known as All Hallow’s Eve. In Scotland, it was commonly known as All Hallow’s Even, which, over time, was shortened to Hallowe’en. Eventually, the apostrophe was also dropped and the name Halloween had come into common usage among the Celtic peoples before the turn of the sixteenth century. Regardless of its name, this day marked the beginning of Allhallowtide, the season during which the living honored and prayed for the dead. But the pagan beliefs and superstitions which allowed that the dead could pass back into this world on that night persisted, in some rural areas, well into the nineteenth century. The darkness of Halloween was considered by many to be a very dangerous time.

As Samhain was subsumed into Christianity and became Halloween, the Christian concept of the Devil joined the other pagan deities and spirits which were believed to invade the realm of mankind on that night. Witches and other evil creatures known to consort with the Devil were then also supposed to be abroad on Halloween night. People who had died with unfinished business were still assumed to have the ability to return to the human world on that night. Those among the living who wished to avoid any encounter with the dead would wear masks or don disguises which they hoped would make it difficult for the deceased to identify them.

The Samhain bonfire persisted into Halloween. Once used by the Druid priests to kindle a new fire for the new year for their communities, it was also used to incinerate any refuse left from the harvest. By the sixteenth century, young children went from door to door, begging for fuel for the community bonfire. These Halloween bonfires were believed to light the way for souls coming out of Purgatory. In some areas, men carried poles topped with burning straw which they took to the bonfire, while in other areas, men heaved pitchforks full of straw into the air above the fire. In all cases, this was done while the members of the community were praying for the souls in Purgatory. Others believed the bright light thrown by those same large bonfires kept witches and other evil spirits at bay.

Though it is not certain, fortune-telling may have had its origins in Samhain rituals. What is certain is that fortune-telling games were an established part of Halloween festivities, particularly in Scotland and Ireland, by at least the seventeenth century. The end of the majority of these games was the identification of the future spouse of the unmarried players, since marriage was probably the most significant event in the life of those dwelling in rural communities. One of the most popular of these fortune-telling games was played in both Ireland and Scotland well into the twentieth century. In Ireland, the game was played with cabbages, and in Scotland with kale. Though there were many variations on these games, most required that the person seeking to know their fortune enter the field where the vegetable of choice grew, either backwards or blind-folded and select one of the plants without seeing it. Once the kale or cabbage was pulled from the soil, it was examined for telling details about the harvester’s future mate. A straight or crooked stalk indicated the future spouse’s character, while the taste of it, whether sweet or sour, would indicated that future spouse’s nature.

Another popular fortune-telling ritual, especially in Scotland, was the burning of nuts. Again, there were several variations. A pair of lovers might each throw a nut into the fire, in which case, the future of their relationship was to be indicated by whether the two nuts burned together into ash side by side, or if one jumped away from the other. Or, a woman or a man with multiple potential mates might name a nut for each of them, throwing all the nuts into the fire at once. The nut which burned the brightest and the longest was considered to be a sign of the truest mate. The most commonly used nuts for these fortune-telling games were chestnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts. It was due to this fortune-telling ritual that Halloween was also known as "Nutcrack Night" in some parts of Scotland and the far north of England.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, walnuts, or rather their shells, were also used in Halloween fortune-telling games which did not involve burning. In one game, tiny objects were sealed inside empty walnut shells, after which a pair of sealed shells were tied together with string. Each pair was given to an unmarried man and woman present at the evening’s gathering. Upon opening the shells, if each shell contained the same object, the couple were destined to marry. If not, there was always next year. Walnut shell halves were also fashioned into miniature boats which carried small candle stubs. Each boat was assigned to one of the unmarried people in the room and all were set afloat in a large tub of water. Future relationships were predicted by which miniature walnut vessels sailed near to or away from the others on the small sea.

Nuts were not the only foodstuffs which had a part of Samhain and later Halloween festivities. The most prevalent of all was apples, fruit which was plentiful and ripened in October, at the end of the month in which Samhain took place. A rather risky Halloween game was first recorded in the last decades of the eighteenth century. "Snap-apple" was played with a thin pole or stick suspended horizontally, at one end of which an apple had been stuck on, while a lighted candle was attached to the other. The stick was set spinning, and while it was in motion, the player, whose hands were tied behind their back, attempted to grab a bite of apple while trying to avoid getting a mouthful of hot wax. The only prize for this game appears to have been getting a bite of sweet, juicy apple, rather than burning wax. This game was so popular in some areas that Halloween was also known as "Snap-apple Night" in Scotland or "Snotching Night" in Wales.

Another game popular in Britain for more than four centuries was bobbing for apples. It was beginning to fall out of favor in the less rural areas of England by the Regency, but was still played throughout Ireland. When intended for fortune-telling, the initials of each unmarried player was carved into an apple. Each player, sometimes blind-folded, would then attempt to retrieve an apple which was floating in a water-filled tub with only their mouth. The initials carved into the retrieved apple would indicate that player’s future spouse. In another form of the game, one of the apples floating in the tub would have had a coin inserted into it. The player who retrieved that apple could be assured of good fortune in the coming year. Another method of retrieving the apples from the water was to drop a fork on them from above in an attempt to spear the desired apple.

Both apple skins and apple seeds might be employed in fortune-telling rituals. A woman would pare an apple, being very careful not to break the coil of skin. Once it was successfully removed, she would throw it over her left shoulder, reciting the following rhyme:

I pare this pippin round and round again,
My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain;
I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head,
My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.

The thrown paring was to be inspected where it fell to read the shape of an initial which would be that of the woman’s future husband. Some unmarried men did engage in this activity, but it seems to have been primarily the province of single women.

When an apple was cut open, the visible seeds could be "read" to learn the marital future of the cutter. Two seeds might mean an early marriage, three seeds a prediction of wealth, four a happy union, &c. The meaning of the number of visible seeds varied from region to region. Alternately, moist apple seeds were removed from the apple, named for potential suitors, and stuck to the face or hands. The first to fall from the face designated an unsuccessful suitor. Or, the number of seeds which remained attached to the hands after a firm clap might indicate the number of years until the clapper would be married. The details of these practices varied from region to region.

Across most of England, in the lands long occupied by the Angles and later the Saxons, non-Celtic peoples, Samhain was little known. Though Halloween was observed in England for the first half of the sixteenth century, it came to be seen as a popish event once Henry VIII separated England from the Roman Catholic Church. After that, was ignored by all but the most devout Catholics, who spent the day and night praying for their deceased loved ones. Then, in 1605, Guy Fawkes unwittingly gave the Protestant English something to celebrate in the season of Allhallowtide. On 5 November of that year, Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament by filling the cellars below with barrels of gunpowder. He was caught before he could ignite the gunpowder and Parliament was saved. In the years that followed, it became the custom to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot by the lighting of a great bonfire in each town and village. Bonfires very like those which were kindled in Celtic regions on Halloween.

In rural areas throughout Great Britain, Allhallowtide was also when many hiring fairs were held. The crops had all been harvested, farmers paid off their workers and contracts were concluded. Many skilled and reliable workers were offered new contracts without having to resort to hiring fairs. However, there were always at least a few farmers in most areas who had to downsize the number of acres they worked or give up their farms completely, thus eliminating the positions of many or all of their workers. Though the largest number of hiring fairs took place on Lady Day, the spring quarter day, there was enough turnover in farm workers in the autumn to justify hiring fairs in some of the larger rural areas. These hiring fairs often took place during Allhallowtide, during which not only were new workers hired, but stock might be bought and sold, and winter supplies purchased from itinerant peddlars. And in those days when travel was an effort, why not also celebrate Halloween while all those people were gathered together?

The version of Halloween which America has now exported to much of the world was unknown in most of Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century. It had its origins in Ireland and was exported to America with the massive Irish migrations to that country during the potato famine. It was in America that ancient Irish customs gave rise to the wearing of costumes, trick or treating for candy, and the carving of jack-o-lanterns from pumpkins. But none of these practices was known anywhere in Great Britain during the Regency.

During the Regency, in most of England, Halloween was essentially ignored, in favor of Guy Fawkes’s Day. Halloween was recognized and celebrated in the Celtic areas of Great Britain; Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland and in parts of England which bordered these regions. But those celebrations were less Catholic or Popish than they were shades of the pagan festivities of Samhain, still observed in Regency times. The very superstitious who had reason to fear the returning dead might mask or otherwise disguise themselves on that night. Other superstitious folk might participate in rituals to protect themselves from the mischief of fairies. But for the most part, Halloween in the Regency was a night of games, many of them intended to reveal the future spouse of the single players. Those living in a rural area in which a hiring fair was in progress might attend to take advantage of the other entertainments which might be on offer, one of which would almost certainly be a large bonfire and probably fortune-telling.

So, Dear Regency Authors, as much as you might enjoy some or all of the aspects of modern Halloween celebrations, you now know that you cannot allow your Regency characters to participate in any of those activities. However, if your story takes place in the fall and includes the end of October, and if any of your characters are Scottish, Irish, Welsh or Manx, fortune-telling games might be just the thing to spice up your story. Perhaps the heroine tosses two or three nuts into a fire to represent her suitors, only to see the nut representing her least favored suitor burn the longest and the brightest, signifying that he will be most true to her. Will she change her opinion of him? Or, might an engaged couple each throw a nut into the fire, only to see one nut jump away from the other, indicating a troubled union. Will they remain engaged? Mayhap a young woman tosses an unbroken apple skin paring over her left shoulder while reciting the appropriate rhyme. Will she see an initial in the fallen paring, and will it be that of the man she eventually marries? How else might one of the various Halloween games be made to serve an upcoming Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Halloween in the Regency

  1. Another fortune telling game is to brush your hair in front of a mirror eating an apple and saying nothing; the face of your true love appears over your shoulder in the mirror. I don’t know how early it is, though. Another: Two chestnuts named for friends or lovers were roasted together on a shovel, and if they jumped apart it was the end of the friendship, if they jumped together it would deepen and so on. Another which is mighty dangerous with muslins and may have been a male game is to set up 12 candlesticks with lighted candles and jump over each in turn. Those that stay lit indicate a happy month in the year to come. I’ve never stopped to ask how old they all are. Just what I recall were ‘games everyone had always played’. And of course at parties, turn the trencher had gone out in my time, but was certainly a medieval game and is mentioned by Alison Uttley in Little Grey Rabbit so it was still going then.
    Parkin, a cross between gingerbread and ginger cake, goes back pretty much to time immemorial, at least in Yorkshire where it originated. It should be a bonfire night treat, but it should be made well ahead of time to mature so I can see it creeping out of a larder early….
    I suspect that the bonfires actually suffered temporal creep to the 5th of November, or Guy Fawkes’ day, when gunpowder treason was so greatly feared that it did not take long for that unfortunate scapegoat to be burned in efigy on bonfires. How long it took to replace one fire with another I don’t know, but using fuel for two so close together, and before one knows how harsh the winter will be seems profligate. We do love our bonfires as a nation, and the Reformation basically put a stop to the 3 fires of St John, which would have made other bonfires [no longer literally bone fires as one of the 3 fires of St John was] the more popular.
    I’ve always said it Savain, but I’ve heard it said Sawain and Savahn. I suspect it depends where you are. And whether you go out for a Samhain wassail to your apple trees to celebrate their harvest or whether you only wassail on 12th night….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I could tell, seeing one’s future spouse in the looking glass was a mid-nineteenth century addition to the “apple” set of fortune-telling games. Which makes sense, when one considers the fact that looking glasses/mirrors were a great luxury, so only the affluent were able to afford them until the nineteenth century. Something to consider, though we take it for granted today: until the nineteenth century, most people outside the wealthy upper classes had never seen their whole body reflected in a looking glass. Among the poor, many had never even seen their face, since they could not afford even the smallest mirror. Nowadays, entire buildings are covered in mirrored glass. Imagine the stir such a sight would have caused three or four hundred years ago.

      There was no mention of jumping over burning candlesticks with regard to Halloween games. Which is not to say they did not take place, just that I did not find them in the references I used. There was one I did not mention, known as “sark dipping.” A single woman dipped the sleeve (or sark) of her shirt or blouse into water. She then placed it before the fire to dry. During the night, she was supposed to see the image of her future husband come to the hearth to turn the shirt so the other side of the sleeve could dry. Apparently, it was very popular in Scotland and Wales.

      I wonder if “Parkin” equates to “soul cakes?” There were a few mentions of them having been given out to children on Halloween, in return for which, the children were to pray for the souls of the dead of the family who had given them the cakes. An early precursor of trick or treat?

      In terms of “bonfire creep”, you may well be right. I did read about Julius Ceasar burning the bones of John the Baptist as the origin of the name “bonfire,” but I could not find that event had any specific relation to Halloween or even Samhain. I suspect that bonfires, or large fires by any name, were comforting to folks as the summer came to an end and the nights got shorter, but they would not have had more than one of them only a few days apart. My research suggests our ancestors were not typically wasteful of the needful items of life, such as fuel. And Guy Fawkes’Day would have given the non-Celtic and/or Protestant folk a chance to get in on the fun. When Guy Fawkes’ Day went to America, it soon became known as “Pope’s Night,” the night on which the Pope was burned in effigy on a great bonfire. Over time, that became corrupted to “Pork Night,” which finally fell out of favor at the end of the nineteenth century. Apparently, any excuse for a big fire! 😉

      It is generally called Sow-an here in the States. I did not realize the pronunciation was different across the pond. I wonder if it might be an Irish version of the pronunciation, since most of these customs were brought to North America when the Irish immigrated during the potato famine. Oh, for an original pronunciation book for Druid words!

      From what I read, there was a lot of cider making around the time of Halloween, since the apples were ripe and had to be used or lost. I read about a drink called “Lamb’s wool” which was made with cider, into which an apple roasting before the fire on a string was allowed to drop. But details were sketchy. I did learn that in the 1820s, not long after the Regency, in some areas, children, and sometimes adults, would name a pair of apples after the local, disliked, gentry couple, then hang them on strings in the fire to spit and shrivel into nothing. But there were no details on why this was done beyond amusement for those watching.

      All in all, Halloween and Allhallowtide are rich with customs, some quite obscure.



      • And tantalisingly little history to them… I’m suspecting the burned apples were originally ritually ‘killed’ with the names of troubles on them [later the unpopular people] to take them away with the troublesome spirits, as a sacrifice… Savahn I had from a modern druid, but he’s a pompous critter with a plummy sort of voice. Savain is what came down from the Scots side to me. I wouldn’t dispute the Irish for Sowan, as I can gather it, in Gaelic any collection of consonants looking like alphabet soup has a pronunciation approximately v in the north and softening towards b or w in the south. Any native Gaels out there?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          The Boston metro area has a huge population of Irish, but I do not number any true Gaelic speakers among my acquaintance. I knew some when I was living in Dublin doing research, but that was more than thirty years ago. Some of them are now gone and I have lost touch with the others.

          The Boston Library has a large Irish history and culture collection. I will check to see if any of their librarians might know Irish Gaelic well enough to give me the correct pronunciation. I will let you know what I learn.


  2. How enjoyable that Halloween in the Regency was a night of games and fortune telling. I liked your plot-bunny about the young woman tossing an unbroken apple skin paring over her left shoulder – she would, of course, hit one of the persons standing behind her, probably the hero (at this time not yet in love with her).
    Using an apple to learn the marital future of the cutter would make a nice scene, too. A young lady (B.) and the villain (C.) would sit next to each other at a dinner table at Halloween. C. has been courting B. for some weeks. B. is heartily sick of him, but doesn’t dare to affront C.
    B. is not familiar with any fortune telling rites, but C. is. When she cuts one of the apples served at the end of the dinner, C. teases her about the means of the visible apple seeds, making it sound highly frivolous, and he is of course referring to B. marrying him. B. is appalled and embarrassed by C. Will she be able to fend C.’ sauciness off herself, or is she in need of the hero to step in?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oooh!!! I like your Halloween scene very much!!! Since, from what I could tell, the “code” for the number of visible seeds varied from region to region, so if B and C came from different areas of England, she might be able to rebuff him by stating that her “reading” of the apple was quite different than his. Or, perhaps the hero is also seated nearby, and, based on his own home region, he might have yet another “reading,” which could develop into quite an interesting scene. 😉

      For the young lady who throws the apple paring over her shoulder, perhaps the hero is there, and has been secretly in love with her for a long time. He takes his chance to tweak the paring with the tip of his boot before she turns round to try to interpret the fallen peeling.

      And before this, I never thought of the apple as a particularly romantic fruit!


  3. There’s a short play from 1817 by James Hogg entitled “All-Hallows-Eve”. It’s available through Google Books for free and it’s a pretty entertaining read =)

  4. Pingback: Origins of Halloween – pumpkins, demons and love matches | Cat's Miscellany

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