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  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

Did Jane Austen Celebrate Halloween?

Did Jane Austen celebrate Halloween?

The short answer to this question is no. Now for the long answer…

Halloween, as we know and celebrate it today (with the accompanying trick-or-treating, costume wearing, and pumpkin carving) did not exist as such in Regency England. What Jane Austen likely observed was All Hallows’ Eve, the Christian holy day that precedes All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ Day) and that eventually combined with various ancient and contemporary superstitions and customs to evolve into our modern Halloween.

Some scholars believe our modern Halloween customs have their roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain (meaning “The End of Summer”), which was observed by the Druids on November 1 at the midpoint between the Autumn and Winter Solstices. During this time, the curtain dividing the present and the past was thought to be weak, and thus spirits of the dead could wander between the two worlds. The night before Samhain, October 31, became a night in which, among other things, townsmen and priests, costumed as spirits, would lead the wandering ghosts in a parade back to their graves. People also set out lanters carved from vegetables such as turnips and rutabagas (although not pumpkins, which had not yet been introduced) to welcome friendly souls and drive out unfriendly ones.

As the Catholic Church spread throughout the world, it sought to replace pagan celebrations (such as Samhain) with Christian ones. Thus, the Western Church eventually shifted its celebration of All Saints’ Day from May to November 1. The Eastern Church, however, continues to celebrate All Saints’ Day on the first day after Pentecost.

A vigil was traditionally kept on October 31 prior to All Saints’ Day, which commemorates those saints who have passed on and attained the beatific vision in heaven. Even after the Reformation, the Anglican church retained All Saints’ Day. Thus Jane Austen, as the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, would likely have observed it, though not with trick-or-treating (which was first introduced by the Boy Scouts in America in the early 20th century) or with pumpkin carving (which did not become a Halloween custom until the late 19th century, when Americans began adopting the Irish custom using a different, New World vegetable), or by taking part in occult practices, but perhaps by keeping vigil that night before participating in the All Saints’ liturgy at church the following day.

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