Halloween Superstitions of the 19th Century

Halloween superstitions
Queen Victoria Celebrating Halloween. Public Domain.

There were many Halloween superstitions of the nineteenth century that were steeped in tradition. For instance, in Wales, bonfires were lit and white stones cast into the ashes to determine how long a person would live. If any stone was visible in the morning, it was claimed, the person who threw in the stones would not live to see another birthday. The same belief existed in the Scottish Highlands where a large-scale version of this was seen each year at Balmoral when Queen Victoria visited. She carried a lighted torch, and tossed it “upon the fire, in which a grotesque figure [was] burnt, whose supposed cries [were] presumed to be drowned by the sound of bagpipes.”[1]

Halloween was also the time when witches, warlocks, and fairies enjoyed revels. In Irish and Scottish folklore there was also the Phooka, “a large, dusky-looking create that sometimes took the form of a horse or pony, sometimes that of a bull, and not unfrequently of a huge bird like the roc, with fire gleaming from its eyes and nostrils.”[2] The Phooka lurked around on Halloween, crept noiselessly upon travelers, and slinked between their legs before throwing them to the moon, plunging them into a lake, or flying with them over mountains or remote realms.

Fairies. Public Domain.

Halloween was also filled with other interesting superstitions. Mortals had power over fairies on Halloween night, so, according to folklore, if a person threw a handful of dust at a fairy on this night, any human being stuck in fairyland had to be returned. There were also several beliefs about the power a child possessed if born on Halloween. Many people believe such a child could converse with and see fairies. The Irish maintained the child was “believed to possess the power of seeing supernatural objects,”[3] and others claimed children born on Halloween were “uncanny” and gifted with “second sight.”

Halloween in the 1800s also involved almost as many love superstitions or spells as did Valentine’s Day. For instance, nuts were burned on Halloween, which in northern England was referred to as “Nutcrack Night.” It was claimed that if a boy and girl put two nuts into the fire and the nuts burned together, the boy and girl’s courtship would end with marriage. However, if the nuts separated, their courtship was doomed and would soon end.

Another Halloween superstition occurred at midnight. That was the time when boys and girls went into the garden blindfolded and each pulled a cabbage (some claimed it was kale runts). Supposedly, the form of the cabbage head and its stalk denoted the physical peculiarities of the person’s future husband or wife. There was also a belief that if the roots tasted sweet or sour, it reflected the future spouse’s temperament.

Scrying. Public Domain.

Another superstition about love comes from Ireland. On Snap-Apple Night (All Hallow’s Eve) a candle, apple, and comb were used to help foretell the future in what is called scrying.

“The love-stricken one has to take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass … when there she has to eat an apple before it and comb her hair. If lucky, she will see the face of her future husband pepping over her shoulder.”[4]

In Scotland, one Halloween superstition involved “three luggies or dishes, one of which was empty, and the two others filled respectively with pure and foul water.”[5] Young lads and lasses were led blindfolded to the dishes and dipped one of their hands into them. If they dipped in foul water then marriage to a widow or widower would occur; if they chose pure water then marriage to a maiden or eligible bachelor would occur, and if they chose the empty dish, the person would die an old maid or bachelor.

One popular spell among the young lasses of Scotland was

“[T]o steal out of the house unperceived, go to the barn, open both doors, and, if possible unhang them, lest the apparition should close [the doors] and do her some injury; then, taking the instruments used in winnowing corn, go through the process of letting down the corn before the wind, repeating the movement three times; at the third an apparition, it was thought, would pass through the place, coming in at the wind-door and going out at the opposite, and this figure would indicate not only the appearance but the occupation of her future husband.”[6]

Another love practice on Halloween was to wet the sleeve of a shirt and hang it to dry in front a fire while lying in bed and watching it till midnight. Supposedly, “the exact apparition of the anxious inquirer’s future partner for life [would] come in and turn the sleeve, as if to dry the other side of it.”[7] A version of this was also practiced in the Scottish Shetland Islands, which was reported by one newspaper:

“[W]e overhead a respectable old housekeeper seriously remonstrating with one of her younger assistants, who had expressed her intention of hanging up her “sark” on a chair before the fire, and of remaining up to see who should come to turn the sleeve. The good woman endeavoured to give her words all the more weight by relating a story … It was of a young woman who hung up the article of dress referred to, and then proceeded to await the arrival of her future husband. She remained for a considerable time in solitary silence without either seeing or hearing anything, till at last, when her heart began to fail her, owning to the dreariness of her situation at that dead hour of the night, she heard first a sound as if a large box had been pushed in at the door, and in another instance, she was nearly terrified out of her wits by seeing a coffin pass over the floor and disappear at the fire-place. This was regarded as an omen of evil and as sign that she would be left a widow … which proved to be the case.”[8]

In Nottinghamshire, if a woman had two lovers, she could determine on Halloween which one would be loyal and faithful. She accomplished this by finding two brown apple pippins and placing each on her cheek. “Having named these from her lovers, she repeated some formula, and then waited patiently until one fell off, then the unfortunate swain whose name it bore was instantly discarded as being unfaithful.”[9]

Almost everyone in the nineteenth century agreed Halloween was a special night. Most people thought of it as a holiday for ghost, goblins, and witches and a night when people dared not go out alone. Instead people congregated in groups and feared the shadows. Nineteenth century people thought of Halloween as a night when the supernatural prevailed, when spirits freely roamed the earth, “when ‘churchyards yawn[ed] and graves [gave] up their dead,’ when disembodied spirits became visible, and when the powers of darkness [were] abroad.” [10] It was also a night one newspaper called, a “season of mirth and mystery! And yet not all of gladness.” [11]

References:

  • [1] Illustrated London news, “All Hallow and All Saints,” November 1, 1879, p. 21.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Alnwick Mercury, “The Observances of Hallowe’en,” November 4, 1882, p. 2.
  • [5] Illustrated London news, p. 21.
  • [6] Graphic, “Hallowe’en Superstitions,” October 29, 1892, p. 20.
  • [7] London Evening Standard, “Halloween,” 31 October 1878, p. 2.
  • [8] Kentish Independent, “Hallowe’en in Shetland,” December 28, 1867, p. 6.
  • [9] London Evening Standard, p. 2.
  • [10] Alloa Advertisere, “Halloween,” November 2, 1878, p. 3.
  • [11] Ibid.

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