Halloween in the Regency

Vintage Halloween postcard

It's that time of year again - crisp autumn leaves crackling underfoot, a chill in the air, and the excitement of children preparing to trick-or-treat their neighbors. 

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and I was happy to find that it was celebrated during the Regency, too. While some customs have changed in the past 200 years, others have stayed remarkably similar.  

Here are some Halloween facts you may know:
  • It's one of the oldest celebrations in the world – it was celebrated in Britain 2,000 years ago by the Celts.
  • Across cultures it is believed that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest at this time of year, which is why spirits can walk amongst us.
  • It is indeed properly spelled Hallowe’en. The word dates to about 1745. It was originally All Hallow's Eve, the day before All Hallow's Day, a Christian holy day now known as All Saints Day.  

Photo of a Danish bonfire.

  • Bonfires and "guising" (dressing up in costume) are old traditions, too. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits. Guising was a Halloween tradition as far back as the 16th century in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. People would don costumes or disguises and go door-to-door asking for food, offering to recite a verse or sing a song in return. 
  • It's thought that orange and black are the colors of Halloween because orange represents the harvest and black stands for death.
  • We can thank the Romans for Halloween customs such as bobbing for apples. When they came to Britain they merged the ancient Celtic traditions with their harvest festivals revolving around the Roman goddess of fruits and seeds, Pomona.

Snap-Apple Night painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise, 1833.
Notice the children in the foreground bobbing for apples.

  • Originally the Brits made lanterns out of hollowed-out turnips or beets. When colonists brought Halloween to the New World the more plentiful pumpkins were carved instead, starting our tradition of the pumpkin jack o'lantern.
  • Speaking of the New World, the Puritans hated Halloween and forbade any festivities (but then, the Puritans were spoilsports about a lot of things).
  • Finally, here's a fun Halloween superstition: if you see a spider on Halloween, it just could be the soul of a dear departed one watching you. 
Ordinary spider or your Great-Uncle Harry?

Finally, here's a PBS kids' cartoon from the 1980s set to Camille Saint-Saëns' musical composition, titled Danse macabre. The music and the animation will get you into the Halloween spirit. 

Saint-Saëns was born in 1835 in Paris, at the tail end of what some consider the general Regency period and two years before Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837. 

I first heard Danse macabre a few years ago when I started watching the BBC TV series Jonathan Creek. (It's a fun detective series about a magician's assistant who uses his skills to solve mysteries - look for it in your local library.) Danse macabre is a haunting tune, beautiful yet spooky. 

The cartoon tells the story of Death, who every year at midnight on Halloween goes to the graveyard with a fiddle and plays music. Skeletons rise from their graves to dance, and they dance until dawn. When the sun rises Death disappears and the dead must return to their graves. 

Happy Halloween!


Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Another fun post! I love your caption under the spider photo--too funny! xo Jennifer

  2. I love Halloween too, and so does Baby Cat, and Baby Brother Cat! It's a fun holiday, that old and young alike can enjoy. Thanks for telling us about it's origin

    - Momma Cat


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