Romancing the Autumn Spirits

by Rivka Willick on September 12, 2011

in Etiquette From The Past

Halloween customs in 2011 are easy to predict. There will be lots of children in store-bought costumes knocking on neighbor’s doors and filling their bags with wrapped candy. We can also count on a huge selection of scary movies and YouTube videos throughout October. Lastly, many of us may be invited to an adult Halloween party or event requiring frightening or provocative makeup and costumes. These traditions seem so familiar it might surprise you to learn that Halloween customs were very different a century ago. The charms and magic of Hallow Eve had more to do with testing the constancy of lovers and one’s matrimonial future.

Before the internet, TV, movies, and radio, people generated their own entertainment. Holidays were opportunities for both young and old to gather together and play. Monster movies and frightening costumes were decades away. Instead Halloween customs were derived from harvest festivals and ancient magical beliefs. Many of the traditional activities connected late autumn fruits and vegetables to fortune telling and romantic predictions.

All but one of these party games and pleasant diversions are all but forgotten. Bobbing for Apples may be the only custom still enjoyed today. The game began with party goers scratching the name of different cities and towns into each apple. Then a tub of water was placed on the floor and all the apples were put in at once. Each unmarried man or woman would dunk their head into the water and lift one apple out only using their teeth. The place on the apple would predict where they would meet their true love. The amount of time it took to capture the apple would indicate how much time would pass before the meeting would take place.

Another custom involved nuts. Although any variety could be used, chestnuts were the best for the Nut Test. A person would choose two nuts and scratch his or her own name and the name of the person they most admired onto the shell. Then the nuts would be roasted on a bed of hot coals. If they burned brightly, it was a sign that the love was sincere. If the nuts jumped apart, it indicated that the match would not last.

The Cabbage Pull took the party outside. Willing couples would be blindfolded and led into a garden patch. They would blindly feel about then each would choose a cabbage and pull it from the ground. The length and shape of the cabbage root would predict the height and shape of their future husband or wife. Clinging dirt was a sign of a prosperous and happy life.

Not all Halloween traditions were connected to produce. The Candle Test had a haunted quality we see in many of our modern customs. Participants would wait until midnight and then go down into the cellar with only a single candle. One by one each person would walk to the furthest corner and look into a mirror which hung on the wall by a single nail. It was said that those who were brave and imaginative would see the image of their true love in the looking glass.
Maybe this year, after the kids have knocked on the door and the parties become tiresome, you might consider scratching names on chestnuts or heading down to the basement to look into a mirror.

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