Though All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day, has been associated with the Christian calendar for millenia, it has its ancient roots in the pagan celebrations of autumn and harvest-time. Such celebrations were common to many cultures as they enjoyed a time of plenty before the onset of the desolation of the winter season. Cornwall had long had its own unique form of this celebration, which, though it originated with the early Celtic inhabitants of the region, took its name from an obscure local saint, St. Allan. Even before the Regency, one of the key features of this celebration were special apples which were believed to have had magical properties.
Allantide and Allan apples in Regency Cornwall . . .
The completion of the fall harvest was considered to be the start of the winter season by many early cultures, even though they were well aware of the motions of the sun, including the winter solstice, by which we in modern times mark the beginning of winter. In the Celtic dialect spoken in Cornwall, this annual autumn celebration was known as Kalan Gwav, which translates as first day of winter. At some point after Christianity came to Britain, Kalan Gwav melded with the All Hallows’ observances. But as the use of the Cornish language diminished, this celebration came to be associated with an obscure Cornish saint, St. Allan, and was known in English as Allantide, "tide" being an arcane suffix meaning a season or a period of time.
There is very little information available on the St. Allen from which the season of Allantide derived its name. He may have been the bishop of Quimper in Brittany, a Celtic-speaking province in northern France, during the sixth century. It is likely that this same bishop had become a saint revered in Cornwall sometime before the thirteenth century. However, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific historical figure as St. Allen, since Allen was a very popular Celtic name. Not to mention that there were a number of alternate spellings of the name, including Alleyn, Alanus, Alun, Alune, Arlan, and Elwin, among other variations. And there is also the possibility that St. Allen was actually female, the name deriving from St. Elwen, an Irish saint who may have lived in the area of Truro in the early medieval period. At some time during the Middle Ages, the apple came to be considered a ritual object which was associated with the Cornish St. Allen.
Apples have had a place in many pagan and sacred traditions around the world for millenia. It is generally believed that the ancient Romans brought the apple to Britain after they occupied the island. In time, the native Celtic peoples adopted the apple into their own culture. For the Celts, apples were strongly associated with love, marriage and fertility. The ability of apples to keep for a long period of time after harvesting, if kept cool and dry, connected them to the concept of rebirth after death. In addition, they also came to be considered the fruit of the Celtic gods and thus, of the Otherworld. Since apples ripen in the autumn, it was perfectly natural that the fruit would be associated with Allantide celebrations, which had similar themes of magic.
By the Regency, Allantide in Cornwall, particularly in the western part of the region, was a celebration which began on the Sunday before All Hallow’s, or All Saint’s Day, and continued through the night of that holy day. According to ancient Celtic tradition, this was the time of the year in which the veil between this world and the Otherworld became very thin and permeable. Therefore, this short time offered an opportunity to communicate with loved ones who had gone before, or to acquire clues about one’s own future. Apples, particularly large red apples, were an important part of this festival as apples were believed to be the fruit of the Otherworld, which gave them special magical powers.
Many shops and a host of open air markets, known as Allan markets, throughout the region, would have prominent displays of large, red, highly polished "Allan" apples for sale. In fact, it was difficult for these merchants to keep enough apples in stock as people bought them in large numbers through the Allantide period. In Cornwall, 31 October, All Hallow’s Eve, was also known as Allan Day, for it was on this day that people presented the polished red apples they had purchased to friends and family as tokens of good luck and to ensure the recipient’s good health for the coming year.
Since apples were strongly associated with love and marriage, it was believed they had the power to reveal their prospective spouse to those who had not yet married. Young Cornish men and women approaching marriageable age would often sleep with the "Allan" apple they had been given under their pillow, or under their bed, on the night of the day they received their apple. They did so in the hope of dreaming of their future wife or husband. In some districts, it was believed that this dream of future love would only come true if the dreamer ate their apple on the following day.
In some areas, instead of, or in addition to, sleeping with the apple under her pillow, a young woman would peel the apple in front of a looking glass. She must do her best to ensure the peel was removed in a continuous strip. The strip of peel was then tossed over her left shoulder and allowed to fall on the floor. Once the apple peel came to rest, its configuration would reveal the initials of her true love or future husband.
But Allan apples were not merely relegated to spending the night under the beds and pillows of young people on Allan Day night. They were also an important part of popular divination games played on that day. The game of bobbing for apples had been a part of traditional Halloween festivities for centuries. In Cornwall, bobbing for apples was part of the association of apples with love and marriage. Before the game began, each girl would give her apple an extra polish, then make her special, personal mark on the apple before it was set to float in the tub of water. Each boy would then bob for an apple, with the expectation that he would marry the girl who’s mark appeared on the apple he retrieved from the tub.
There were a couple of other divination games that involved suspended apples which appear to have been particularly popular in Cornwall on Allan Day. In "Snap Apple," a single apple would be hung from the ceiling on a sturdy string. All the boys would gather beneath the suspended apple, leaping as high as they could, while trying to take a bite out of the apple. The first boy to actually take a bite from the apple was believed to be the first in that group who would marry. However, his future spouse was not revealed by the game.
The other divination game which involved suspended apples had become popular in the area of Penzance around the turn of the nineteenth century. It was still played there during the Regency at Allantide. Two strips of wood, each between eighteen to twenty inches long and about an inch to an inch and a half wide, were nailed together to form a simple cross. Four candles were placed on the top of each arm of the cross. This candle-laden wooden cross was suspended from the ceiling, usually in the kitchen of the home. Then, an Allan apple was hung by a short string from each arm of the cross. In many households, as with bobbing apples, marriageable maidens would have placed their mark on one of the apples before it was suspended from the cross. When it came time to play the game, the candles were lit and the boys gathered beneath this Allantide "chandelier." Each boy took turns jumping up to try to catch an apple in his mouth. Boys who were too slow or missed the apple and hit one of the arms of the cross were likely to get a blob of hot wax in the face for their efforts.
Dear Regency Authors, should you set a story in Cornwall during the autumn season, might you allow your characters to enjoy some of the Allantide celebrations? Perhaps the heroine encounters the hero while she is visiting an Allan market, shopping for Allan apples for her friends and family. Is the hero from outside Cornwall and will she find herself a bit embarrassed when she tries to explain how the apples are to be used? Or, perhaps the heroine is from Cornwall, working as a governess far from home. Will she set up a game of bobbing for apples for the young people in her care? How else might the Allantide festivities be woven into a Regency romance?