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.