As we near Halloween, it’s fun to think of elegantly gowned young ladies going door
to door begging treats, perhaps dressed like Madame Catalani here, who is acting the part of an ancient Babylonian princess. Can’t you see the Prince Regent dressed like a pumpkin?
Halloween as we know it today was not celebrated during the nineteenth century in England. Trick-or-treating is an American custom. Yes, I know there’s evidence it all goes back to the Druids, but during the nineteenth century such customs had largely disappeared, particularly in the large cities.
The Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England, celebrated the Feast of All Souls on November 1, when parishioners remembered those who had died. The night before was known as All Hallow’s Eve, when the spirits of the dead were thought to wander.
In the country it was a little different. On All Hallow’s Eve, local traditions might have a young man playing tricks on the neighbors like upsetting the hay cart or pitching the garden gate into the pond. Children might go door to door singing for the souls of the dead (and earning money or cakes in return). In other places, young men and ladies scurried about carrying mangel-wurzels as lanterns to ward off the spirits of the dead.
And what, pray tell, is a mangel-wurzel, you ask. It’s a humungous beet, growing as large as a human head.