Although I call The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla my Halloween book, I do so with some reservations.
True, it’s set in October, in that season of mist and shrinking daylight hours, of changing leaves and that sudden, sharp chill in the air. And part of the book, the part that’s set in Cambridge (the American one) in 2004, really does deal with Halloween. My modern heroine, Eloise, is having her English boyfriend Colin to visit in her tiny studio apartment in Harvard Square, just in time for the annual grad student Halloween masquerade bash. There’s even a plastic pumpkin filled with those pot-bellied candy corn pumpkins and mini-Twix with bats on the wrappers.
But there’s a caveat: in England in 1806, where the bulk of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla takes place, there is no Halloween, or, at least, not Halloween as we know it.
I did a bit of scrounging around, to see what rituals and practices my characters might have been familiar with, and here’s what I discovered:
The tradition of the evening of October 31st as a night on which ghosts walk goes back a very long time. One version has it that Halloween originated in the Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when the dead wandered among the living, and was later transformed by Pope Gregory IV into a Christian holiday, Hallowmas, in the 9th century. The name “Halloween”, or “Hallowe’en”, comes from the festival of Hallowmas: All Hallows Eve, All Hallows (or All Saints) Day, and All Souls Day, in which the dead are remembered.
The modern holiday of Halloween, with its costumes, jack-o’lanterns, and trick or treating, is generally held to be a mid-nineteenth century Irish export to America. “Mumming and guising” were popular in the Celtic fringe (Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), but they don’t seem to have taken much of a hold in England.
There was a form of trick or treating: going door to door collecting “soul cakes” to pray for those in purgatory. Bonfires were lit, to guide the souls to heaven or to scare them away from the living, depending upon whom you ask.
The Reformation appears to have put paid to many of these practices in England. In the seventeenth century, the introduction of Guy Fawkes Day—a commemoration of the 1605 plot to blow up King and Parliament—meant that the bonfires moved over a few days, to November 5th. Elements of the older holiday remained in rural communities in England, with bonfires, carved turnip lanterns, bobbing for apples and other traditions which varied by locale, but the gentry did not observe these rituals.
The bottom line? Halloween, as we understand it, would have been unknown to Miss Sally Fitzhugh or the Duke of Belliston, although they might have been aware of the superstitions attached to the night as practiced by the tenants on their estates.
I wasn’t able to use Halloween in the historical part of my narrative, but I did have October itself as an asset– that season of leaves fallings, light dying, mists rising. My historical characters might not have Halloween, but they had the atmosphere of Halloween.
Minus the candy pumpkins, of course.
What’s your favorite part of Halloween?