The origins of Halloween are ancient, but when Ruth Edna Kelley set out in 1919 to explain the holiday’s past in The Book of Hallowe’en, she found that the portion of tradition that survived into the 20th century had less to do with sun worship and Samhain than it did with costume parties, cooking and, surprisingly, romance.
In many ways, the picture Kelley paints of a circa-1919 American Halloween party is pretty similar to what partygoers might expect to find this weekend. Guests showed up in costume, often as ghosts or witches. Jack-o’-lanterns and corn stalks were customary decor. Food included gingerbread, cider and apples. An enthusiastic host might even have created a “frieze of witches on broomsticks, with cats, bats, and owls” on the mantlepiece, and snacks could be served in cauldrons. Appropriate colors were black and “deep yellow,” or what we now call orange.
But then things start to diverge. Halloween, Kelley writes, “is a time for lovers to learn their fate.”
Wait, what? It turns out that the activities at a vintage Halloween party were often aimed at singletons eager to use the holiday’s spooky aura for some fun with each other. The options were many:
- Before bobbing for apples began, the names of guests were tied to the fruits’ stems. The name on the apple you bite is whom you’ll end up with. Alternatively, the apples could be hung on strings from the ceiling. The taste of the apple would indicate the quality of the future marriage: “wholesome, acid, soft, fiery, or sweet.”
- If twelve candles are placed on the floor and lit, a person who jumps over them and thus blows one out will discover, by that means, in which month he’ll be married. If the same is done with one candle, extinguishing the flame means “a year of wretchedness.”
- Two apple seeds can be picked to stand for two lovers. When both are stuck onto someone’s forehead, the one that stays longer is the more faithful of the two.
- A partygoer can put nuts in the fire that have been named for her potential lovers; the one that pops first is the one who loves her.
- A pumpkin can be carved with the letters of the alphabet. When a blindfolded guest stabs the pumpkin with a pin, the letter he finds is the initial of his future love.
- Girls at the party may go down into the basement, walking (carefully!) backwards while holding a candle and a mirror, hoping to see their intended’s face in the glass. Likewise, “a girl who sits before a mirror at midnight on Hallowe’en combing her hair and eating an apple will see the face of her true love reflected in the glass.”
The many fortune-telling traditions range from harmless to downright strange. While a romantic Halloween party could lend a fun vintage feel to a modern get-together, some old customs might be well avoided. Case in point: “If a girl steals a cabbage…she must put the cabbage over the door and watch to see whom it falls on, for him she is to marry.”