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Wednesday, October 28, 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. From Wikipedia.


Obe said...

Ah great post. I knew of the other carvings like turnips the Scots brought that tradition to Virginia and luckily they found pumpkins a greater canvas to carve on LOL.
Loved it.

Nancy O

Penelope said...

Hi Linda! I LOVE this painting! Hope Pumpkinnappers is doing great...such a sweet, fun story. Can't wait for Halloween this weekend! :)

Lindsay Townsend said...

Fun post, Linda! Interesting about the turnips. Super picture!

LK Hunsaker said...


Turnip carving, how interesting. Which reminds me, I still need to buy pumpkins!

Linda Banche said...

Hi Nancy, glad you liked the post. I wonder how many hours it took to carve a hard turnip into a lantern.

Penelope, I agree, the painting is very nice. And thanks for your kind words about Pumpkinnapper.

Thanks, Lindsay. I understand they also hollowed out turnips without making a face and used them as candleholders.

LK, a mangelwurzel is a beet. Here's more info than you ever wanted:

Amy De Trempe said...

I've always wanted to know more about Regency holidays and I've seen so little with regard to Halloween.

Linda Banche said...

Hi Amy. Well, Halloween wasn't really much of a holiday back then for anyone.

Come back for my next post, when I'm doing a holiday that was celebrated in the Regency, Bonfire Night. I'll be a little late for the actual date, but information is information!