Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: Robert Burns, "Halloween" (1785)

From The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities (1832)
I'm starting my Countdown to Halloween with Robert Burns' "Halloween" (1785). Why? Because throughout the first half of the nineteenth century there was no more influential account of Halloween entertainments.

Why else? Because Burns was hugely popular in America. As Frank Luther Mott put it in the classic Golden Multitudes, "No discussion of poets popular in nineteenth-century America can neglect Burns." Want more proof? Look at this neat looking collection, Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture, released by Ashgate earlier this year.

You can read the poem here, in the famous Kilmarnock edition of Burns' poems, or you can read it here, a little more easily, in this 1847 American edition, with explanatory notes. In the Kilmarnock edition, Burns prefaces the poem with the following description. Halloween, he writes:
What's particularly interesting about the poem, though, is the way that it portrays Halloween primarily as an evening for games of fortune-telling, particularly romantic prophecy. That aspect of the day might have fallen away long ago, but we'll see it echoed again and again in the pieces that follow in this countdown.

What's also intriguing is the way that commentators, both British and American, talked about the poem - and, indeed, Halloween itself - in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Apparently, no two authorities could agree on the day's status, but it swiftly becomes clear that Halloween was hardly universally observed at this point, and was mostly associated with Scotland and Ireland. This 1800 edition of Burns' poems declares that he "records the spells and charms used on the celebration of a festival, now even in Scotland falling into neglect, but which was once observed over the greater part of Britain and Ireland." A footnote declares: "In Ireland it is still celebrated. It is not quite in disuse in Wales." On the other hand, this delightful Book of Days, published in 1832, notes in relation to some of Burns' details, "There is a remarkable uniformity in the fireside customs of this night all over the United Kingdom. Nuts and apples are everywhere in requisition, and consumed in immense numbers." Though it also adds: "many of the rites [...] are now obsolete or nearly so, but two or three still retain place in various parts of the country."

Crossing the Atlantic, this fascinating article about "New England Superstitions" in an 1833 edition of the New England Magazine declares rather compellingly:
But then again, in this appreciative commentary on the poem by a Samuel Tyler of Maryland, published in 1848, the author felt the need to describe Halloween itself in some detail, as if his readers were unlikely to be familiar with this "ancient festival [...] connected by the imagination of the people, with all those charms and spells by which a rude people pry into futurity. This festival is held on a night, when fairies, and other aerial beings, are supposed to be abroad in the world on their mysterious errands." Charles James Cannon's Bickerton; or, The Immigrant's Daughter (1855), also described the day as if it was in need of this explanation, which echoes Burns and pegs Halloween squarely as an imported Scottish and Irish folk custom:

So while it seems that Halloween itself might not have been kept very vigorously, on either side of the Atlantic, in the first half of the nineteenth century, certainly the practices described in Burns' poem seem to have been familiar to many in one form or other. And the poem itself certainly was - so enjoy.


Caffeinated Joe said...


Guillaume said...

This is a gorgeous image. We often forget how old is Halloween and how much it changed over the centuries.