Robert Burns published the poem Halloween on 31 July 1786, when Jane Austen was ten years old. The devoted lover of poetry that she was, she would have doubtlessly have been familiar with it as a teen. But did she celebrate Halloween, the way others did in her time?
Alas, we cannot know for sure … but it was certain she was aware of the celebrations at the very least.
Wi’ merry sangs, and friendly cracks, I wat they didna weary; And unco tales, and funny jokes, Their sports were cheap and cheery; Till butter’d so’ns, wi’ fragrant lunt, Set a’ their gabs a-steerin’; Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt, They parted aff careerin’ Fu’ blythe that night.
Most of these celebrations, which were often the domain of Scots and Irish folk, would have been too uncouth and rustic and Catholic and non-English for girl of Jane Austen’s social class. However, the English of all classes did mark the occasion in their own way:
“In England we celebrate all hallows eve or nutcrack night as this vigil is called by eating apples and cracking nuts; we disclaim and reject all worship of saints but as they never did us any harm if the apples are good and the nuts sound and we feel inclined to eat them we indulge our taste and kindly suffer the departed worthies to take whatever credit they may think redounds to them from the due performances of these ceremonies.” –The London Magazine, 1826
She would have also been aware of “souling” on the night of 31 October, which according to the Journal of the British Archaeological Association (1801) was when “both children and grown up people go from door to door a souling to begging for soul cakes or anything else in fact that they can get.” The soulers would have often been decked out in gaudy or terrifying costumes. Jane Austen would have been too well-off and dignified to have been part of this precursor to trick-or-treating, but she may have helped her mother pass out the treats or watched it done by the housekeeper.
As the daughter of sincere country clergyman, she was probably more familiar with the solemn religious aspect of All Saint’s Day. This was (and still is) one of the seven principal feast days of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism. In the Anglican Church, the term ‘saints’ now referred to every member of the Christian community, and this day was time to reflect on the Communion of Saints from the liturgy. It was a time to honor and remember the dead.
The collect of the day, in the modern Book of Common Prayer, reads:
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
For Jane Austen, the Hallowmas treats would have been the family feast that followed the church service, and the lavish puddings that would have surely ended the meal. She may have stayed at home with her own large family, or there may have been a convergence of the extended family as Americans do on Thanksgiving. The Austens may have been invited to join neighbors at their feasts, or have hosted visitors of their own. It was a time to eat, drink, and make merry.
I suspect that one of the featured dishes would have been stubble-goose, “an older bird that fattened on harvest gleanings … traditionally served with applesauce.” This would have fit both the time of year, and the tradition of eating apples on this holiday.
There were likely also holiday-like amusements to go with the large dinner, such as cards, games, music, and dancing … all things Jane Austen loved.
The Austens were unlikely to have placed flowers, decorations, or candles on the graves in the churchyard, however, or allowed anyone else to do so. One of the rights of the clergyman in this period was to be able to graze his livestock in the graveyard, and the last thing Rev Austen would have wanted was for one of his cows to potentially eat bunting, or poisonous plants, or a bunch of candles. Moreover, the Geroegian era graveyard was frequently smelly due to lax observation of how deep corpses were buried, and there was nothing quite like a rotting hand poking up from the earth to throw off your appetite for a church feast. Not to mention the cowpats that might be strewn throughout.