Forgotten Halloween Fortunes

I’ve written about the Halloween fortune telling games in the old cards: kale-picking, apple-peeling, and mirror games. And I’ve talked about how some of the cards played with this trend by making up their own ridiculously complicated “spells.”

But there were plenty of other traditions that show up from time to time. You won’t see these repeated too often, but they’re fascinating (and even creepy out of context).

Luggie Bowls


Luckily, this game didn’t always require a creepy pumpkin(?) headed man leering at you.

Luggie bowls are a tradition that seems to go back to old Celtic areas, particularly Scotland. (Note the hint at tartans in the woman’s dress above.) The game was incredibly popular, and you can find so many versions that it’s hard to pin down anything authoritative. But it generally went like this:

‘Luggies’ are small bowls with handles (‘lugs’). In this tradition, three of them would be filled with different substances and arrayed before a blindfolded fortune-seeker, whose future was fortold by whether he touched the dish of clean water (marriage to a virgin), dirty water (marriage to a widow) or nothing (no marriage would occur). (43)

That’s from Lisa Morton’s excellent Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, which you should just go buy. Morton’s a wonderful horror writer and anthologist to begin with, but she’s also written a lot about Halloween history, and I’ve quoted from this book I don’t know how many times. It’s an incredibly intersting and thoughtful history.


More Scottish-ness in the language and thistle and tartan.

James Joyce uses the game in his story “Clay” from Dubliners where a woman plays only to have her fate (a continually sad life) turn out just as awful. Robert Burns also makes fun of the game in his poem “Hallowe’en” when a character gets so frustrated at bad fortunes that he throws all the bowls into a fire.


I know she’s blindfolded because of the luggie bowl game. But this one always make me think of Disney’s most terrifying move ever: Watcher in the Woods.


Yarn in the Kiln


You’re not hallucinating. It will all make sense.

These cards show lime-kilns, a kind of stove used on farms to make quicklime which was would kill the stench of dead animals or people in burials. But they were pretty common. Somehow, it became a Halloween tradition to take a ball of blue yarn, and – I’ll just let Morton explain again:

“In the classic version of this fortune-telling stunt, the girl threw her clew (or ball [of yarn]) into the kiln and would soon find something tugging on the yarn, at which point she cried out, ‘Who holds?’ She would then hear the name of her future husband which – needless to say – was likely uttered by the hidden boy himself.” (38).

I’m still not sure exactly why the kilns became the place for this, but I recall reading somewhere that there were beliefs that fairies of some sort lived in them like burrows.


I don’t think that ugly dude’s gettin’ lucky if the pumpkin has anything to say about it.

In practice, this became a chance to play all kinds of tricks on people, too, and Morton quotes a story I adore:

There is a story of a tailor having hid himself in anticipation of this mode of divination being resorted to, and when the ball was thrown he caught it and gave the thread a tug. In answer to the question ‘who is this at the end of my little rope?’ he said, ‘I am the devil’ … and the woman to whom this frightful answer was given never tried divination again. (39, from John Gregorson Campbell’s Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland)

The yarn game itself moved around and left the farm, even showing up in cities as well:


Talk about getting caught in a net! Get it? Because marriage is a trap! It’s lifelong, unsexy S&M! (Sorry…)


Eggy Love

I’ve only seen this once, but it’s just so weird-looking:


Why does the candle smoke guy have a hat?

Egg divination! Apparently called oomancy (I picked that link because the site is so amazingly cheesy), which was new to me, and I thought I was a specialist in weird crap. But from what I can tell, the trick was to read the egg whites for the initials of your future lover. The card shows it making a face that I guess you’re supposed to recognize. But I imagine the actual process was made up on the fly.

Your Lover’s Nuts

There were lots of traditions about roasting nuts over the fire. Sounds like a certain ex-girlfriend, but never mind that. A few of the cards allude to some of them, but no overall trend. Some say the cracks in the shells would be the initials of your lover. Others were more like “he loves me/he loves me not” games, where a nut falling into the fire was bad news. There was even a period where Halloween was called “Nutcrack Night” in northern England because the game was so popular. (Morton, 53)


I bet you do, you minx…


Fortune Cake

A lot like the King Cake from Mardis Gras, baking a cake with a small token in it was a common practice in Ireland and Scotland. Whoever got the ring or prize would either get married in the next year, or marry the cook, or need dental work. Accounts vary. But it does explain why there are a lot of Halloween cards that feature some serious cake lust:


“The Dipping of the Sark Sleeve”


It’s as weird as it looks.

I’m not 100% certain, but I think this card is showing something like the tradition of the “sark sleeve.” Again, Lisa Morton explains it better than me:

Many of the now obsolete fortune-telling rituals involved water, but perhaps none was as popular as the ‘dipping of the sark sleeve.’ [Robert] Burns says this must be performed ‘whare three lairds’ lands meet at a burn’, and at that point a young woman would dip her sleeve in to the water, then return home to set the shirt to dry by the hearth-fire. The lass would then retire to bed, and during the night would see her intended enter the room and turn the shirt, so that the other side would dry as well. (42)

Now, if that’s what’s going on here, that poor person’s love life just got weird…

See any other cards that need ‘splainin’? Let me know in the comments or at


Making Halloween Difficult


Yarn. Throw it. Then do some stuff, and…yeah.

Halloween used to be a time for regular people to cast spells and get their fortune told. “Good Christians” could be reassured that this was all just a game and play along with darker, mysterious forces in safe way. Or so it’s fun to think. Mostly, this meant games trying to figure out who you’d fall in love with, which were probably just a socially acceptable way to flirt at parties. You would carve an apple, or look in a hazy mirror, or even pick a cabbage. (Yes, cabbage. Even kale, before kale was koole.)

But sometimes, things went overboard, as things often do.


So, find an owl at just the right time, catch it, pluck a feather, eat it (wash it first?), and someone will ask you to marry them between midnight and 6:30 am.

A lot of the cards have these elaborate, overly detailed rituals you’d have to follow which seem far more complicated than they should be.


Wait, first get a hand held mirror. Then you gotta walk backwards after figuring out how long a damn “rod” is. Oh, and hold a lit candle! Then you’ll meet your fate which, by that time, is probably falling down and setting your house on fire. Especially if there’s a horde of black cats running behind you.

Some of this may be due to the fact that in the early 1900’s, Halloween parties became a big “thing.” According to Lisa Morton, this was a very intentional way to get1898book kids, especially boys, off the streets and away from pranks. (Morton, 69) There were even books and pamphlets, like the popular Hallowe’en: How to Celebrate It by Martha Russell Orne, detailing games, decorations, and party activities to keep your guests occupied. I’m guessing some of these cards are drawing on the kinds of “advice” given by pamphlets like these rather than talking about long-held traditions that have an actual history.


Run to your room without being seen…yeah, pretty sure this is just an excuse to steal up there and neck with your “friend” without getting caught.

But maybe not. Maybe these cards hold secrets to effective methods of divination. Maybe if I follow this, I’ll find out that I shouldn’t have married my wife but should have totally gone for that sweet, sweet chick back in high school who, last I heard, had 5 kids, a couple sources of alimony, and a police record.


I’ve shown this before, but, still…that’s a lot of damn work. I mean, what if your garden doesn’t have beets?

But I doubt it.


What if the feather isn’t a peacock’s but a dove’s? Or a mockinbird’s? Or a standardwinged nightjar’s?

My bet is that some poor copywriter was told he had four hours to fill the blank space on these cards with “spells,” and he spewed out some crap.


Again…the set up for this is far too effort-heavy for my tastes.

I don’t want to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, though. If you’re up for it, give any of these a shot and let me know what happens. Just be sure to set aside a couple of weeks for all the prep work.











Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).

Apple Peels for Love

Halloween Apple Peel

“S” for Sampo!

Along with the mirror “spell,” apples appeared in many divination games at Halloween parties. Apples are common harvest fruits, and we’re familiar with bobbing for apples, cider, and apple treats eaten in the autumn. But for a time, Halloween was directly associated with apples, even being called “Snap-apple Night” in some parts of England and Scotland. (Morton, 53)

“Snap-apple” itself was a game where players attached one end of a stick to an apple and the other to a burning candle. The whole thing was spun, and the players tried to bite the apple rather than get a mouth full of hot wax. (Morton, 53) Now, some call the game of trying to grab a hanging apple with your mouth “Snap-apple,” but there’s no way that’s as entertaining.


Um, what is she reaching for?


One of the most common Halloween games in the 19th century used apple peels for fortune telling. A young man or woman was to peel an apple and throw the peel on the floor. Then they interpreted the peel’s shape to learn about their future mate, either through letters of initials or shapes resembling suitors.


Apparently lots of girls would be marrying “S” guys.



She’s a little young to worry about this yet.

In most examples, the young woman had to throw it over her shoulder to get the effect.


She’s gonna keep trying until she gets a “J” for Josephus.


Other versions seemed more immediate, apparently giving young couples some “instructions” on how to behave.


“Any old thing”


It’s interesting how often peeled apples and even loose peels appear on the cards even when there’s no mention of lovers or even when depicting children obviously too young to care. Still, the icon was as ubiquitous as pumpkins and spiders are today.


Creepy ass owl.


Of course we’re now familiar with bobbing for apples, at the very least from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. But many other games involving apples were also popular, some suggesting a fortune-telling aspect and others just for fun.




Morton, Lisa. Trick or treat: A history of Halloween. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.


Halloween Mirror of Love


So is the mirror cutting that guy in half?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Halloween was a time for parties. These weren’t the elementary school kids parties with monsters and candy and haunted houses. Instead, they were adult parties where the main events were games for young adults to learn about their future spouses.


You’ll never escape the kitchen!

One of the most common involved mirrors. Although there were countless variations (as you can see by the differences in the cards), most of them involved gazing into a mirror on Halloween night in order to see the face of your beloved.


They have matching hair color!

Some versions said this had to be done right at midnight, most often carrying a candle. (Bannatyne, 73)


Call me crazy, but I’d be freaked out by a dude in the mirror behind me.

Others required you to eat an apple while looking into the mirror. (Some even mixed this with the apple peeling game.)


I’m guessing the ring is also a mirror…

Some required the young woman to brush her hair before the spell could work. (Bannatyne, 75)


Uh, that’s just a picture behind you.

A few went all out and figured that if one weird task was good, lumping them all together was better.


Gotta gather the reagents of the spell won’t work.

Some of the strangest required a young woman to walk down the stairs backwards at midnight while holding a mirror. Not exactly the safest way to do it.


She almost made it down!

It’s no surprise that this game was ripe for pranks and tricks, and many of the cards show people trying to scare those taking the game a bit more seriously. There are also legends that the game could backfire in terrifying ways Lisa Morton quotes a tale about just that:

A lady narrates that on the 1st of November her servant rushed into the room and fainted on the floor. On recovering, she said that she had played a trick that night in the name of the devil before the looking-glass; but what she had seen she dared not speak of, though the remembrance of it would never leave her brain, and she knew the shock would kill her. They tried to laugh her out of her fears, but the next night she was found quite dead, with her features horribly contorted, lying on the floor before the looking-glass, which was shivered to pieces. (Morton, 39)


Some see lovers, some see cultists.

I still haven’t quite figured out where it came from, but it may just be an old folk tradition that became a game. Still, I prefer this to saying Bloody Mary three times and freaking myself out.


Dear God, it’s evil!



Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1990.

Morton, Lisa. Trick or treat: A history of Halloween. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.

Of Cabbages and…Kale?

The strangest Halloween cards usually depict lost or regional traditions. They’re odd because of the anachronism, not because the makers were insane (or at least they were insane for different reasons).

Most of the early cards depict fortune-telling games. These made up the main event at parties before trick-or-treating was a “thing.” My guess is that these became so popular partially because Halloween was the one time of year where it was socially acceptable to participate in “witchcraft” (of a very innocent sort) and being able to play at casting “spells.” (Whether we think of it as All Souls’ Eve or Samhain or the end of the Celtic year, the day has always been a time when you had to protect against spirits but could also play with that spooky other world in fun ways.)

For the next few posts, I’ll describe the rituals that appear on the cards and explain the source and significance. That said, it’s still more fun just to think WTF!? when you see a lady throwing an apple peel over her shoulder with the caption “Merry Halloween!”

(Other posts in this series:

Of Cabbages and, uh, Kale!


I hope he doesn’t look like any of these guys, honestly.

That’s not a poorly drawn vegetable costume. Cabbage and kale were a huge part of Halloween fortune-telling traditions, especially in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Like most of these Halloween games, the point of “kaling” was for young people to learn about their fate in love.

Robert Burns’ poem “Halloween” sums it up nicely (and you should really read the whole hilarious thing):

Then, first and foremost, through the cabbage,
Their stalks are sought at once;
They touch their own, and grasp and choose,
For very strong and straight ones.
Poor fellow Will fell off the drift,
And wander’d through the cabbage,
And pulled, for want of better shift,
A cabbage like a pig’s tail,
So bent that night. [Modern English version]



You have now read the phrase “wise cabbage heads.”

In sum: you’d run out in the field (some insist at midnight) and yank up a stalk of cabbage (Ireland), kale (Scotland), or sometimes leeks (Wales). The shape, length, and even taste of the stalk would tell you a lot about your future mate. Short and thick? Plan on cooking a lot. Withered and old? You’d probably snag a widower. You could even guess the size of your dowry (or your spouse’s wealth) by how much dirt was on the stalk. It left a lot of room for interpretation: crooked could mean deceitful, but it could also have a bit more of a literal…translation. (Miller, 38; Bannatyne, 72)


This one starts in with a bit of the ole’ guilt for wanting to know the future.

Some sources say that couples were to pull them together to find out if they were compatible. Others say it was less about the type of person you’d get but whether or not you’d be married within the year (only if your stalk come up whole rather than broken off).


The blindfolds are new to me.

When the tradition came to America, it got a bit more mischievous. On what came to be called “Cabbage Night” (or sometimes “Cabbage Stalk Night”), it was common to go out to the cabbage fields (sometimes only after crossing a graveyard to make it work) and fling the cabbage at houses. (Miller, 66) Maybe they did it after the spell, or maybe the Yanks dropped that whole bit and went straight for the vandalism. USA!


You got your kale in my mashed potatoes! You got your…yeah, you know.



Cabbage also made it into a food-based game more common with cake but still very much part of the traditional Halloween meal: colcannon. This mix of mashed potatoes, onions, and kale would also have various tokens like a ring or coins, and, according to the particular game, if you got one of these in your portion, it would tell you how long before you could expect to be married. Apparently finding a thimble would mean you’d die a spinster. Either way, I’d fear for my teeth. (Smith)

I’ve yet to find a card with this (admittedly tasty) mush. (Yeah, I made some.) But I promise to keep looking. In the meantime, sleep on this:


Why does the moon look so sad?

One last bit: I haven’t found anything about beets or root-vegetables in particular, and the beet one’s more about how long the picker will live. Still..head out to the garden on the 31st and fortune-tell…something!


Carrot? Parsnip? Any other guesses?


That fairy-thing looks a tad peeved that you’re taking his beets, yo.


Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1990.

Morton, Lisa. Trick or treat: A history of Halloween. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.

Smith, K. Annabel. “The Halloween Tradition Best Left Dead: Kale as Matchmaker.”, 2012.