Victorian Halloween Traditions

witch silhouette

Victorian Halloween traditions are not much different than those many of us practice now. Of course, just as now, not everyone felt that some of these traditions should be practiced and even look down upon the whole thing as just plain crazy or even evil.

Most of the articles I have read from that era have described fun, silliness, and merriment. This article was one of the few that I found that, although the games, etc. are described, I get the feeling the writer was less enthused with Halloween than most.

This article was published in Harper’s Bazaar, 1894. It has been edited for this site. I did, however, leave the poem excerpts as was written – as when you read it, you will understand why. (Poetry, punctuation and I have never had a great relationship .. lol).


Among all the holidays of the year, none is more clearly a relic of paganism, and none, O tempora, O mores! More popular with our youths and maidens, than All-Hallows eve, or Halloween. This is the night when supernatural influences are all in the ascendancy; when ghosts if cheerfully minded, may “shriek and squeal about the streets,” and the small boy, unreproved, attack the privacy of his neighbor’s door with discarded cabbage and perfect impunity.

Divination now attains its highest power and the most occult mysteries, ordinarily shrouded from the practical vision of the wise and prudent, unfold themselves unhesitatingly for the delectation of lovelorn swain or timorous maiden, while the gift of calling spirits “from the vasty deep” may be accorded to any who desires the privilege.

Nuts and apples seem to be the necessary concomitants of Halloween, and are in universal requisition as mediums of communication between the spirits and their interlocutors. From both Ireland and Scotland come many of the curious rites practiced on this night. It is still one of the customs of those countries, when a young woman would know what fate has in store for her in a matrimonial way, to put several nuts upon the grate, naming one for herself and the others for her lovers. If a nut burst or jumps, that lover will prove unfaithful; if it blazes, he has an undying affection for the person making the trial; while if the nuts named after the girl and her lover burn evenly side by side, a happy marriage is certain to follow. Burns vividly portrays this custom in his “Halloween”:

“The auld guid-wife's weel-hoordit nits
Are round an' round dividend,
An' mony lads an' lasses' fates
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle couthie side by side,
And burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa wi' saucy pride,
An' jump out owre the chimlie
Fu' high that night.

Jean slips in twa, wi' tentie e'e;
Wha 'twas, she wadna tell;
But this is Jock, an' this is me,
She says in to hersel':
He bleez'd owre her, an' she owre him,
As they wad never mair part:
Till fuff! he started up the lum,
An' Jean had e'en a sair heart
To see't that night..”

Another ancient Halloween custom still in vogue among the children is to suspend an apple by a string attached to its stem from the portiere rod or a screw in the ceiling. This being set twirling, each of the youngsters in turn is required to leap up and snatch at the apple with his teeth, without touching his hands to it. Another favorite game is to put apples in a tub, and then filling it half full of water, allow the children to duck their heads and catch the apples with their teeth.

In addition to these are other games, weird and fearful, befitting the occasion. One of these is the celebrated spell of eating an apple before the looking glass with the view of discovering the inquiring suitor in the act of peeping over her left shoulder.

Burns thus describe a scene between a little maiden who would fain try the magic spell and her grandma, who was evidently much averse to suitors:

Wee Jenny to her graunie says,
"Will ye go wi' me, graunie?
I'll eat the apple at the glass,
I gat frae uncle Johnie:"

To this proposal the old lady decidedly objects, and

She fuff't her pipe wi' sic a lunt,
In wrath she was sae vap'rin,
She notic't na an aizle brunt
Her braw, new, worset apron
Out thro' that night.

"Ye little skelpie-limmer's face!
I daur you try sic sportin,
As seek the foul thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune:
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight!
Great cause ye hae to fear it;
For mony a ane has gotten a fright,
An' liv'd an' died deleerit,
On sic a night.”

Doubtless the lady had truth on her side, for it is a well-known fact that many persons never recover from the effects of their won imagination, or some practical joke carried too far.

Eating a teaspoonful of salt while walking down the cellar backward with a lighted candle in one a hand and a small mirror n the other is supposed to offer exceptional facilities for the “coming man” to “cast his shadow before,” presenting his reflection, if not himself.

Still another popular rite is to repeat the following doggerel, meanwhile suiting the action to the words:

“I cross my shoes in the shape of a T.
   Hoping my true-love will appear unto me –
The color of his hair, the suit he will wear
   The night he is wedded to me.”

If, as sometimes happens, after all these various incantations, the “looked for” still holds himself aloof, it is but reasonable to suppose that “Kismet” has ordered, wisely or otherwise, that the devotee should remain a spinster.

Emma Paddock Telford

If you decide to follow any of these Victorian Halloween traditions, just remember these are games and are not to be taken seriously! Or should they?  ;-)

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