Friday, October 30, 2020

The Truth About Halloween and Tudor England

by Nancy Bilyeau

I have a passion for 16th century England. My friends and family, not to mention my agent and editors, are accustomed to my obsession with the Tudorverse. Namely, that for me, all roads lead back to the family that ruled England from 1485 to 1603. Could it be possible that Halloween, one of my favorite days of the year, is also linked to the Tudors?

Yes, it turns out, it could.

The first recorded use of the word "Halloween" was in mid-16th century England. It is a shortened version of "All-Hallows-Even" ("evening"), the night before All Hallows Day, another name for the Christian feast that honors saints on the first of November.
But it's not just a literal connection. To me, there's a certain spirit of Halloween that harkens back to the Tudor era as well. Not the jack o' lanterns, apple-bobs and haunted houses (and not the wonderful Christopher Lee "Dracula" movies that I watch on TCM network every October, two in a row if I can). It's that mood, frightening and mysterious and exciting too, of ghosts flitting through the trees; of charms that just might bring you your heart's desire; of a distant bonfire spotted in the forest; of a crone's chilling prophecy.

The Oxford Astrologer
In pre-Reformation England, the Catholic Church co-existed with belief in astrology and magic. It was quite common to attend Mass regularly and to consult astrologers. "The medieval church appeared as a vast reservoir of magical power," writes Keith Thomas in his brilliant 1971 book Religion and the Decline of Magic. Faithful Catholics tolerated the traditions of the centuries-old Celtic festival of Samhain ("summer's end"), when people lit bonfires and put on costumes to scare away the spirits of the unfriendly dead. In fact, an Eighth Century pope named November 1st as the day to honor all Catholic saints and martyrs with an eye toward Samhain.

Soul cakes
Nothing shows the merger of Celtic and Christian beliefs better than "soul cakes." These small, round cakes, filled with nutmeg or cinnamon or currants, were made for All Saints’ Day on November 1st. The cakes were offered as a way to say prayers for the departed (you can picture the village priest nodding in approval) but they were also given away to protect people on the day of the year that the wall was thinnest between the living and the dead, a Celtic if not Druid belief. I am fascinated by soul cakes, and I worked them into my first novel, The Crown, a thriller set in 1537-1538 England. Soul cakes even end up being a clue!

In the early 16th century, Halloween on October 31st, All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows Day) on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd were a complex grouping of traditions and observances. Life revolved around the regular worship, the holidays and the feast days that constituted the liturgy. As the great Eamon Duffy wrote: "For within that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual observance and symbolic gesture, lay Christians found the paradigms and the stories which shaped their perception of the world and their place in it."
Sculptures smashed at Worcester Cathedral.
Henry VIII changed the perceptions of the kingdom forever when he broke from Rome. A guiding force in his reformation of the Catholic Church was the destruction of what he and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell scorned as "superstition." Saints' statues were removed; murals telling mystical stories were painted over; shrines were pillaged; the number of feast days was sharply reduced so that more work could be done during the growing season. "The Protestant reformers rejected the magical powers and supernatural sanctions which had been so plentifully invoked by the medieval church," writes Keith Thomas. The story in The Crown is told from the perspective of a young Catholic novice who struggles to cope with these radical changes.

My children love Halloween as much as I do. Yet somehow Halloween, the day before All Saints’ Day, survived the government's anti-superstition movement, to grow and survive long after the Tudors were followed by the Stuarts. It’s now a secular holiday that children adore (including mine, who are trying on costumes four days early). 

As for me, I relish the candy handouts, costumes and scary movies—and I also cherish our society’s stubborn fondness for bonfires and charms and ghosts and sweet cakes, for in them can be found echoes of life in the age of the Tudors.

This is an Editor's Choice and was originally published on October 27, 2011.

Nancy Bilyeau is a historical novelist and magazine editor based in New York. She wrote the Joanna Stafford trilogy, a trio of thrillers set in Henry VIII’s England, for Simon & Schuster. Her fourth novel is The Blue, an 18th century thriller revolving around the art & porcelain world. Her latest novel is Dreamland, set in Coney Island of 1911, is published by Endeavour Quill. A former staff editor at Rolling StoneEntertainment Weekly, and InStyle, Nancy is currently the deputy editor at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and contributes to Town & CountryCrimeReads, and Mystery Scene magazine.

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  1. What a great post Nancy! Thank you for sharing :)

  2. The Truth About Halloween and Tudor England
    By Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown, a thriller set in 1537-1538 England for sharing this entertaining and informative overview of Halloween.

  3. Fun and informative. Thanks, Nancy.

  4. I did not know ANY of this before now, and I thank you for enlightening me. Seems like there might have been a time I could have actually been a Catholic...

    Lovely writing, too!

    All the best wishes for the success of your first book. Can't wait to read it!

  5. Thank you Tim!
    And thanks very much Theresa. I'm very interested in how the late medieval Catholic church co-existed with magic. A certain tolerance took place then that people don't associate with Catholicism today, i think.

  6. I'm a catholic and born on All Soul's I learned a lot of this growing up, but not all of it--I knew nothing about the soul cakes. Thanks so much for the lesson! Just a great post!

  7. thank you Tess. I can send you a recipe for soul cakes if you want. I found it while doing my research. Haven't tried it but it looks good. :)

  8. Lovin' those soul cakes and Tudor traditions!

    I'm down here in Tucson for a few months where Dia de los Muertos is the way to celebrate Halloween. Love the history of different cultures... Best of luck on your upcoming book release! The Crown sounds like a royally good read!

  9. Thank you, Nancy, for enriching my Halloween.

    Another, surprising enrichment has come my way, quite in line with these survivals you write about. I'm supposed to attend (if i'm not snowed in here in Pennsylvania) a Dios de los Muertos march and service at St. Marks Church in New York City. The march is from Union Square to the church on 10th St. and 2nd. Ave. Apparently people are making votive objects for their own dead and carrying these folk-art votives to the church for blessing, after the manner of the Mexican festival. i had no idea this was going on till a friend, a few days ago, invited me to attend.

  10. Thank you, Linda. I love Arizona!
    Katherine, hmmm, you've got me thinking that I should try to attend a service like that. So fascinating.

  11. I always enjoy a historical perspective of Halloween. The soul cakes are new to me too.
    Congratulations on your upcoming book release.

  12. Fun post. It made me think of all the ghosts haunting Hamptoin Court Palace.

  13. Fun stuff. Brought back memories of some scary Irish nuns of my youth. I also remembered sin eaters.

  14. Peter:
    Scary Irish nuns rule the world!
    Thanks for the sin eaters link.

  15. Thank you for this fabulous article, Nancy, which I am linking to on my blog. I cannot wait for your next book and I know others are looking forward to it as well. You are right that in Medieval times astrology was considered a science and was used in healing and gardening rather than as a means of divination. I just wanted to add that although what might be described as "folk magic" or "white magic" was sometimes tolerated in the Middle Ages, often as part of a larger healing ritual or warding off the evil eye and such things, black magic was always frowned upon. Let us remember that poor St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake because her enemies accused her of being a witch and thus being in league with Satan. And Queen Elizabeth Woodville's mother was arrested on charges on witchcraft (although she was acquitted) because witchcraft and divination were capital offenses in most medieval countries. Thanks again for the great article! Irish nuns DO rule the world!! ;-)

  16. So interesting - soul cakes are still made in the North of England and I remember being told as a child that a special one was made for the sin eater at a funeral who would then literally consume the deceased sins. This was in the 1970s so myths persist!

  17. A most entertaining article! These traditions are widespread. The Aztecs had their own festival of the dead, at the same time, only it went for two weeks. When they converted to Christianity, and wanted to keep up the tradition, the Spanish missionaries talked them into cutting it back to two days, hence the Mexican Days of the Dead. :) Really, a lot of pagan traditions have hung on because Christian missionaries tried to get converts by saying, " Look, it isn't all that different, you can go right on celebrating this or that festival, we'll just change it a bit."


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