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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Fetes, Samhain, and More: Autumn Traditions in the 18th Century

Publication Date: Oct 1, 2020

Did someone say Trick Or Treat?

Painting of a masquerade

This research blog is a holiday special that explores what celebrations and activities might have occurred in the 18th and early 19th centuries in England. While the first question that comes to mind might be, "What did they do for Halloween?" the answer is disappointing: "They didn't." With that established, let's dig into what they did do during October and early November.

Any Halloween-esque traditions we have come to know and celebrate stemmed from a culmination of Pagan traditions found in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. England, especially during the 18th century, was highly superstitious, and thus did not celebrate anything related to Halloween. The superstitions we see in the 18th century is a research interest for another day--anyone up for a haircut on the full moon or bloodletting in the spring? I'm sorry to say but there would not be a Halloween masquerade to attend. The traditions we know of and celebrate now did not even come about until the middle of the 19th century, so not only was the Georgian and Regency era in the wrong country for such traditions, it was also the wrong time.

Sketch of Guy Fawkes

Most of Georgian England's holidays were not actually religious holy days but were political and dynastic, such as fireworks on the King's birthday, bonfires on Guy Fawkes' Day, and so forth, all with the intent of promoting patriotism. There were, of course, some rural festivals that enacted pagan lore, such as the horn dances of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire (August) and the stoning of Jack O'Lent on Ash Wednesday, as well as celebrations connected to agriculture and the stages of farming, such as Plough Monday, rush-bearing, harvest home, sheep-shearing, etc., but the Georgian celebrations were predominately secular.

Before we look at the activities that were happening during that time, let's take a brief look at the origin of Halloween:

Samhain. This is Druidic in origin, a Pagan Celtic tradition known as the Feast of the Dead. It typically begins October 31 and ends Nov. 1. The primary purpose of Samhain is to pay respect for the Dead. Samhain and Halloween are quite different, although the timing is the same. Halloween, or All Hallow's Even, is secular and family-oriented with costumes, spooks and scares, playacting, and trick-or-treating. Samhain is religions, spiritual, and private. How Samhain is celebrated depends on the region, but it can range from bonfires and feasts to in-home meditation and reflection. To disguise and distract from Paganism, Christianity (most pointedly Catholicism) offered new names and festivals: All Saints' Day or All Hallows (8th century), All Souls' Day (11th century), Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos (16th century).

Sketch of witches on brooms

A good source that offers some fantastic detail on not just the history of Samhain but also the traditions that have metamorphosed into Halloween traditions can be found at this site. Another great source to learn more about Samhain specifically can be found here.

Although Halloween wasn't one of the celebrations, there were a few activities that we would see happening during the October and November months. These are the ones we should see in novels during the Regency and Georgian era, as well as mentioned in some way in Jane Austen's novel.

Guy Fawkes' Day: Also known as Bonfire Night or Firework night. Since 1605 when the treason plot was foiled, Nov. 5 has been a day of both remembrance and celebration, ending with bonfires and fireworks. Since Fawkes and his fellow plotters set out against a revival of Catholic rule, he was lauded by Anglicans as a hero, thus the remembrance. But of course, he failed, so for some, this could be a day of celebration. Rather than looking forward to Halloween, our heroes, heroines, and secondary characters would have looked forward to the Nov. 5 celebrations. To read a bit more about Guy Fawkes' Day, check out both this page and this page.

Autumn Harvest Fair: October was the time for harvest fairs, and we see such festivals featured in many autumn-based historical romances, including in a couple of my own novels. The goals of rural fairs depended on the location and the needs of the community, but typically involved raising money, hiring new workers, buying and selling of the year's final harvest, and buying winter wares from peddlers. A great story feature that would be realistic for the time would be the appearance of gypsies at an autumn fair, and even better yet, how about gypsies telling fortunes and selling charms and potions? This link explores some of the modern autumn fairs we can still enjoy (although I can't promise there will be gypsies).

Foxhunting: While not remotely connected to Halloween, this is what we would see the aristocratic heroes doing during the Allhallowtide. While some foxhunts might start in October, most would be in early November to coincide with the ages of young foxes (no sense in hunting foxes that are too young or too old, eh?). This is a popular feature of Georgian novels and is the most common event we would see during the span of late October and early November. The actual hunts would never last long, sometimes lasting mere minutes, but they were quite the celebratory events. They were weeklong house parties that included lavish dining throughout the day, typically al fresco, from elevenses (especially popular in the late 18th century) to tea to supper and any other opportunity to eat and socialize. Foxhunts were extraordinarily expensive to host. House preparations, meals, paid staff including the Master of Hounds, Kennelman, Huntsman, and others that would assist during the hunt, care for the horses, care for the hounds, etc. And yes, the bulk of The Heir and The Enchantress takes place during a weeklong foxhunting party. For a bit more information on Foxhunting, check out this page.

Painting of The Meet at the Manor House by Heywood Hardy
The Meet at the Manor House by Heywood Hardy

Shooting Parties: While most commonly held in October, it wouldn't be unusual to see a shooting party hosted in September or even as early as mid-August. Shooting parties could be as lavish as foxhunts, but they could also be a single day's event, thus while as popular with aristocrats as foxhunting, the gentry would have enjoyed hosting and attending shooting parties far more than foxhunts. They could be expensive, but they could also be hosted economically. This is likely why we see shooting parties mentioned so frequently in Jane Austen's novels rather than foxhunts since she focused on gentry rather than aristocrats. We see shooting referenced in both minor and poignant ways in Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. For a bit more detail on that, check out this link.

Within my own novels, I reference shooting parties in The Duke and The Enchantress and in The Colonel and The Enchantress, as the Duke of Annick hosts an annual shooting party in October, something we see only mentioned in The Duke, but attended by the hero in The Colonel. What would those in a shooting party be shooting, you ask? Birds! Depending on the place, the type of bird would differ. Even depending on the time period, the birds of a given location would differ, as some of the birds that are hunted today were not introduced until the 19th century. Generally speaking, pheasants would have been popular in Devon, partridges in Sussex, and grouse in Yorkshire. For more about shooting parties, enjoy this super fun page. I just might do more in depth explorations of shooting parties and foxhunts in a future research section--something to look forward to!

Don't be disappointed that you won't find a Halloween party, masquerade, or otherwise during October in the Georgian or Regency periods (although if the book takes place in Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, there just might be allusions to Samhain), because there were quite a few other popular events that would have entertained our heroes and heroines. With that said, although trick-or-treating might be a stretch, who's to say our heroes and heroines can't attend a masquerade at the end of a weeklong foxhunting party? It's fiction after all!


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