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Showing posts from October, 2017

Friday Follies: Trick or Treat

Now, I have to be honest with you; trick-or-treating as we know it wasn’t practiced during the Regency era. But the elements that go into trick-or-treating have a rich and ancient history.
The custom of trick-or-treating combines two very old Celtic traditions: guising (wearing costumes and masks as a disguise) and souling (also spelled soaling), where the poor would knock on people’s doors to ask for ”soul cakes” (food) or money. In return, the supplicants would offer to pray for the souls of departed loved ones.
If “soul cakes” were the original “treat,” the “trick” in trick-or-treat has its origins in the pranks that were often played on Halloween night. There’s evidence that Halloween mischief-making goes back at least a couple of centuries. 
There’s a line about “fearful pranks” in Hallowe’en by Scottish poet John Mayne, a 1780 poem about Halloween celebrations that may have influenced Robert Burn’s poem (described in this post) on the same theme half a decade later.  
Throughout t…

Madame Tussaud

What do Benjamin Franklin, Marie-Antoinette and Grumpy Cat all have in common? The answer involves Madame Tussaud.
More than just a name on a wax museum, Madame Tussaud was a real historical figure whose long life not only encompassed the Regency era but was more colorful than anything the most imaginative fiction writer could invent. She barely survived the horrors of the French Revolution and lived on to devote her considerable artistic skills to bringing death to life - in wax.
She was born Anna Maria (“Marie”) Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France, in 1761 during the time of the monarchy or ancien régime. Her mother, widowed right before little Marie was born, supported herself and her daughter by working as a housekeeper for a Swiss physician, Philippe Curtius, who also happened to be an expert in anatomical wax modeling.
Curtius went to Paris in 1765 to establish a business making wax portraits. He worked on some famous figures, including a head of Madame du Barry, the last mistress of…

Friday Follies: Colcannon

If we’re going to discuss Halloween fortune-telling games played in the British Isles, I can’t omit colcannon, a dish traditionally served in Ireland onOíche Shamhna (Halloween).
It sounds like some kind of medieval weapon, but colcannon is actually a mixture of potatoes and cooked cabbage or kale. The name comes from the Irish word cál ceannann, or "white-headed cabbage.”

Colcannon is a popular dish in Ireland year-round, but on Halloween, fortune-telling charms are stirred into the dish. If you find a ring in your portion, you’ll be the next to marry. A doll indicates children are in your future. A thimble foretells spinsterhood for a woman, while a button means a man will remain a bachelor. Finding a coin is a sign that wealth is in your future.
Regardless of the charms, single girls would often wrap a leftover piece of colcannon in a stocking and put it under their pillow at night to dream of their future husbands.
There are many versions of this recipe, but the main ingredien…

Halloween fortune-telling games during the Regency and beyond

Forget Valentine’s Day. In centuries past, it was Halloween when romantic young people got their marital hopes up, especially in the British Isles.
On Halloween night, young folks of centuries past used nuts, apples, and mirrors to try to determine who and when they would wed. 
There were a few different types of popular fortune-telling or divination rituals that were played on Halloween. One way was to write the name of your sweetheart on a hazelnut and throw it in the fire. If it burned steadily your love was true. If it popped and jumped out of the fire, well, that was clearly a sign that your sweetie was unreliable.
If you were having your hard time picking between two suitors, you'd get three nuts to put on the fire grate – one for you, and the other two for the contenders. The nut that stayed beside you indicted who'd be your best bet.
And finally, if you’d already selected your nut, er, future spouse, you could put two nuts on the grate, one for each of you, and watch how …

Friday Follies: Witches We Love to Hate

Following my last post on real-life suspected witches, I thought it'd be fun to make a list of fictional witches we love to hate – the hags and crones that form popular notions of what a witch looks and acts like.

A comprehensive list of witches in literature, film and other forms of media would take multiple pages and lots of patience to read. So, for this special Friday the 13th edition of Friday Follies, here's my pick of a few classic witches, in chronological order:

1. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1603-1607)

“Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble . . .”
Perhaps the most famous literary depiction of witches is in William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, written in the early 17th century. The hideous hags are deliciously evil, gleefully leading Macbeth to his doom. Some critics think that Shakespeare’s witches are modeled on the three “Fates” of classical Greek mythology. In fact, in the play they are referred to as the “weird sisters” more o…

Regency witches

Along with jack o’ lanterns and black cats, witches are iconic images of our contemporary Halloween celebrations. But during the Regency, witches weren’t the comfortable and familiar holiday symbols that they are to us today. The history behind witches was too recent and too gruesome for that, and people living in England during the Regency would have been very aware of that history.
According to historian Suzannah Lipscomb, about 100,000 people across Europe were accused of witchcraft in the three centuries between 1482 and 1782, with an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 executed. Although the majority of the accused were women, they weren’t the only ones put to death for the crime of witchcraft - about a quarter of the victims were men.
In case you’re wondering, in America during the 1692-93 witch trials in the Salem, Massachusetts colony 20 suspected witches (14 of them women) were executed, all but one by hanging. (The unlucky exception was a man who was “pressed to death” by heavy planks …