The party had just died down and all the revelers were heading home. All, that is, except for three young women, each of whom had a different destination in mind. The first was headed off to a cabbage field. Once there, she planned to walk backwards, steal the first plant her heel hit, and take it home to examine its roots. The second girl went searching for a salted herring, which she would then eat in three bites—bones and all—before going to sleep without drinking any water. The third needed to find a newborn baby and then get it to drink from a bowl. Later, she would fill the bowl with paper cutouts of every letter of the alphabet and let it sit overnight.
Why were these girls doing such bizarre shit? The answer is simple—it was Halloween night in 19th-century Scotland, and they were each trying to find out who they would marry.
Halloween has its roots in the Celtic holiday Samhain, which began well over two thousand years ago. November 1 was the Celtic New Year—the end of harvest season, the beginning of winter, and a time of death and rebirth. It was believed that Samhain Eve—October 31—was the night when “the veil” dividing this world and the spirit realm was the thinnest, thus allowing the dead to commune with the living, and also giving priests a special opportunity to foretell the future. Thus, the very earliest Halloween celebrations involved bonfires, dressing in costumes to frighten off evil spirits, and telling fortunes.
About a thousand years later, when Christianity overtook the Celtic nations, the church declared November 1 as All Saints Day (aka All Hallows’ Day), a holiday to honor the dead (how original!). The night before All Hallows’ Day was All Hallows’ Eve, which is how we got the name “Halloween.” Just as with the Celts, among Christians it was believed to be a time when there was less separation between the living and the dead. People dressed up in costumes so they wouldn’t be recognized by the evil spirits walking the earth. And according to author Christina Hole in her 1976 book British Folk Customs, All Hallows’ Eve also evolved into “mischief night” or “devil’s night,” when boys and young men would wreak havoc on their communities in the form of vandalism, theft, and other pranks, which they would then blame on spirits coming through the veil.
Centuries-old rituals associated with the day’s special benefits for fortune telling survived as well, and since at least the 1700s, young women used this opportunity for practical purposes. At a time when they had little ability to determine the courses of their own lives, it was their future husbands who would mean the difference between happy, healthy, wealthy, and fulfilled lives, or adulthoods filled with misery, poverty, and abuse. Getting even the slightest bit of insight into who their spouses might be could ease their anxiety—at least until next year. So, for hundreds of years, they utilized a vast repertoire of divination games to consult with the spirit world regarding their love lives.
In America, Halloween traveled from the British Isles with the earliest settlers, although celebrations were modest—mainly singing and ghost stories while girls played at foreseeing their future husbands—and were limited to a handful of states. Then, in the mid-1800s, millions of Irish immigrants, fleeing the devastating potato famine, brought their traditions with them and helped spread the holiday nationwide. By the early 1900s, Halloween had become popularized as “a night of ghostly, merry revelry,” as recorded by Ruth Edna Kelley in 1919’s The Book of Hallowe’en. Parties were held with décor that included witches and pumpkins, food, and a variety of fortune-telling activities, particularly those that promised to reveal one’s future spouse. It was all fun and games until someone threw a cabbage through the window—which happened quite frequently, since some of the less-savory traditions, such as boys committing violence and vandalism on Halloween, had also become widespread. By the early 1920s, Halloween was one of the most dangerous nights of the year.
It didn’t take long for Americans to grow tired of teenage ruffians committing crimes on an annual basis. So by the early 1930s, reformers began trying to change Halloween. That’s when the practice of “trick or treating” came into being, with the first recorded article mentioning costumed kids going door-to-door asking for candy appearing in The Morning Oregonian in 1932. The idea was simple: why not buy off kids with sweets in order to keep them from bashing in windows or beating up little children? (Yes, this happened.) As the country entered midcentury, the pranks and fortune telling that occupied young adults were left behind while the holiday became focused on children. Shortly thereafter, marketers seized upon Halloween as an opportunity to sell billions of dollars’ worth of candy, costumes, decorations, and more, which is where things pretty much remain.
Today, most of us have no idea that for centuries, Halloween was a night when girls gathered to ritualistically conjure romantic intel from the great beyond. But there are plenty of historical accounts to remind us of how our foremothers used to celebrate.
One of the most popular old-world Halloween games to make the leap from the British Isles to 20th-century America was “Bobbing for Apples.” But for girls, there was more at stake than getting their hair wet. That’s because it was believed that catching an apple meant catching a good husband. Some thought the first apple caught should be placed by the winner under her pillow to bring on a ghostly vision of her future husband. This sort of apparition was called a “fetch,” and on Halloween night, women would try all kinds of rituals to catch a glimpse of one.
Another common way to use an apple in soothsaying was the “Apple Peel Love Test,” which is believed to have originated in Scotland. An apple was peeled in one continuous strip (if the peel broke—tough titties, no man). Then the woman who peeled it swung the skin around her head three times while saying, “By this paring let me discover/The initial letter of my true lover,” before throwing the peel over her left shoulder. The letter the peel formed on the ground was the initial of the woman’s soulmate. The seeds also played a part. A gal could name two wet apple seeds after her crushes and then stick them to her forehead, cheeks, or eyelids. The first seed to fall off indicated which dude wouldn’t stick around. But if a girl preferred one of the guys represented by a seed, she could twitch her face to produce her desired outcome. “A mischievous girl will bear close watching in this test, or she may help on the cause of her favorite suitor by winking off his rival,” The Paducah Sun noted in 1905.
Nut games were also common. According to The Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader (2009), 18th-century English women would walk around a walnut tree three times on Halloween shouting, “Let him that is my true love bring me some walnuts!” Then they'd watch, waiting for a fetch to appear. In Ireland, three nuts were placed on a fire, representing three of the player’s crushes. “The Test of the Nuts” by Dorothy M. Shipman, from 1900's The Jolly Hallowe’en Book, vividly described what came next:
“The Three Bowls”—or “Luggie Bowls,” as they are called in Scotland—was a “Will she or won’t she?” game. Three bowls were set out, one empty, one with clean water, and one with dirty water. Blindfolded players each placed their left hands in one bowl: clear water signified marriage, muddy water meant widowed, and an empty bowl predicted a loveless life.
Even the food served at Halloween could reveal one’s future marital status. “A very amusing game is played with mashed potatoes,” observed the Evening Public Ledger of a 1914 Halloween party. “Into the midst of the mashed potatoes a dime, a ring, and a thimble should be placed. The potatoes are then eaten by the guests…. The one who gets the ring will soon be married. The one who gets the thimble will live alone all his or her life. The discovery of the dime betokens the reception of a legacy or the gaining of riches.” A variation is described in 1912’s Games for Hallow-e’en by Mary E. Blain. “Some canny lassies have been known to get the ring into one of their very first spoonfuls, and have kept it for fun in their mouths, tucked snugly beneath the tongue, until the dish was emptied. Such a lass was believed to possess the rare accomplishment of being able to hold her tongue.”
Another food-based practice was known as baking “Dumb Cakes.” Basically, the players would bake some nasty little cakes over the course of a couple of hours in complete silence. If someone spoke, she would be the last to wed. In this Scottish tradition, the dough is made from an eggshell each of salt, wheat, and barley meal. Each woman marked her initial on her cake with a pin, the cakes were placed by the fire by 11 p.m., and the women sat as far away from the stove as possible, each flipping their cake once. At midnight, the fetch of whomever was to be married first was supposed to touch her marked cake. There are a few different versions of the game with the creepiest described in The Halloween Encyclopedia this way: “After baking the cake, the girls removed all pins and unfastened their clothes before heading upstairs to their beds. En route, apparitions of their future husbands would try to snatch them, and they could only escape by wriggling out of their clothes.
“I’ve named three nuts and placed them
Side by side on the grate,
The one which cracks is unfaithful,
The lover I know I should hate.
The one which blazes with brilliant fire,
Tells of high regard, ’tis said,
But the one which burns with a steady flame
Names the man whom I shall wed.”
Once the Halloween parties ended, girls would often sneak out to play “The Cabbage Test” or “Pulling the Kale,” which was first mentioned in Robert Burns’ 1785 poem, Halloween. “Many of the customs mentioned by Robert Burns are now obsolete, but one still in vogue is that of pulling kail [sic] or cabbage stalk at random and they return to the fireside, where their prizes cause a great deal of merriment. As the stalk is long or short, straight or crooked, so shall the future husband…be,” explained The San Francisco Call in 1899. “The quantity of earth sticking to the root indicates the amount of wealth, and the taste of the pith the kind of temper one must expect.” In some versions, girls walked backward into the field and picked the first plant their heels hit.
Kale could also be hung over a doorway with the stalks numbered and assigned to each girl. Then, the first man to walk through the door would have the same initial as the future husband of the girl assigned stalk number one, the second man had the initial of the second girl’s hubby, and so on. In America, cabbage was placed over a door as well, but this time, the first man who got conked on the head by a falling cabbage shared the same initial as someone’s groom. In Ireland, girls cooked the cabbage and tasted it. Bitter meant a grumpy hubby, sweet meant loving. In yet another field test, a lonely lass would walk backwards into a leek field and stab a plant with a knife. Then she’d hide and wait to see if her fetch would appear, take the knife, and throw it into the field.
After party hopping and creeping around in fields all night, lovelorn Halloween celebrants had little time left to get answers from the spirit realm. But for some, the biggest challenge was yet to come as they tried to get their hands on a baby and then enticed it to drink out of a bowl in order to play the “Alphabet Game.” As described in 1919’s The Book of Hallowe’en: “A very elaborate charm is tried in Newfoundland. As the clock strikes midnight, a girl puts the 26 letters of the alphabet, cut from paper, into a pure-white bowl which has been touched by the lips of a new-born babe only. After saying:
"Kind fortune, tell me where is he
Who my future lord shall be;
From this bowl all that I claim
Is to know my sweetheart’s name"
she puts the bowl into a safe place until morning. Then she is blindfolded and picks out the same number of letters as there are in her own name, and spells another from them.”
For those who couldn’t get their hands on a newborn, Pennsylvania’s The Morning Call reported in 1891 that, instead, a girl could find two long-stemmed pink roses and silently take them to bed. One represented the diviner, and the other her boyfriend. The player would twine them together, focusing on the one that represented her man, and recite the following:
“Twine, twine and intertwine,
Let my love be wholly mine,
If his heart be kind and true,
Deeper grow his rose’s hue.”
“If her swain be faithful,” the article advised, “the color of the rose representing him will grow darker and more intense.”
But of all these traditions, mirror divination was long considered the most popular pastime for girls on Halloween, as described by the Los Angeles Herald in 1909: “In a thousand boarding schools a thousand girls will creep down the cellar stairs holding a mirror and a candle as the hour strikes twelve, looking fearfully for the reflected face which is to tell them of the future, and in more than a thousand apartment houses—where there are no cellar stairs—young women will eat an apple before a mirror and hold a candle by whose light they expect to see that same prophetic vision.” By prophetic vision, the author means a fetch of the girl’s future husband hovering behind her in the mirror—a sight which surely would send even the most intrepid investigator tumbling down the stairs if it were to ever actually happen.
There are several variations on this Scottish tradition. In one, a girl would sneak off at midnight and cut an apple into nine pieces. She’d hold each slice on the tip of the knife before eating it while looking into a mirror, hoping her ghostly fetch would pop over her left shoulder and ask for the last slice. Some would eat the apple while holding a candle or combing their hair. If a woman saw a skull instead of her fetch, she would die before marrying. And in a dangerous twist, a girl might also walk upstairs backwards carrying a lit candle, a pinch of salt in a thimble, and a mirror, while counting the strands of her hair. At the top of the stairs, she would swallow the salt, then look over her left shoulder in the mirror for her fetch.
Nighttime rituals were also performed to bring on prophetic dreams. “To know whether a woman will have a man she wishes, get two lemon peels,” declared The Hawaiian Gazette in 1895. “Wear them all day, one in each pocket. At night, rub the four posts of the bedstead with them. If she is to succeed, the person will appear in her sleep and present her with a couple of lemons. If not, there is no hope.” Others would put a bit of wood in a glass of water, and before going to sleep, say, “Husband mine that is to be, come this night and rescue me.” This was supposed to cause the diviner to dream of falling off a bridge into the water, only to be saved by the spirit of her future husband. Perhaps the grossest way to coax revealing dreams was the Scottish tradition of eating a salted herring (including the bones) in three bites and then going to sleep without any water. The dreamer’s thirst would summon her bae to bring her a drink. Talk about being thirsty for love!
While these rituals may seem silly today, young women had faith in Halloween games years ago because sometimes they actually worked. In small communities where everyone knew everyone else, planting the seed that a certain beau would be welcomed as a husband might encourage courtship.
Eventually, romantic pursuits became the purview of St. Valentine’s Day and the old divination games faded from Halloween, leaving only costumes, candy, and ruminations on death and the afterlife to carry the holiday into the 21st century.
Those seeking love today turn to Tinder, not a mirror. And collectively, we’ve stopped trying to make “fetch” happen. Thankfully, a woman’s future isn’t solely determined by who she marries anymore, so we probably won’t return to these Halloween traditions. But if there’s one thing that never goes out of style, it’s love. And in its pursuit, a little magic never hurts. -Callie Watts
Top Image: Courtesy of the Oshawa Museum Archives
Images 3 & 5 Courtesy of Toronto Public Library
Images 2, 4, 6, 9 Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola
Images 7 & 8 Courtesy of Picture Collection, The New York Public Library
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!