Special links exist between the 16th century and the holiday I love
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 and that family which 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.
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.
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 debut 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.”
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.