The modern secular holiday that is Halloween has evolved in so many ways over the twentieth century that its “customs” would have been unrecognizable even a century ago. At that time, the focus was much more on divination than on horror: pumpkins, black cats, and witches were in the margins but for grown-ups, fortune-telling was in the forefront. There’s a long process of assimilation that creates Halloween–from harvest to Samhain to the eves of All Saints’ and All Souls days–but the evolving traditions of the harvest holiday converged most vividly in Scotland, and Scotch-Irish emigres transferred them to the New World, where they were subject to yet another process of assimilation. In his 1785 poem Hallowe’en, Robert Burns presents and annotates the customs of western Scotland: its longer title, The Merry Diversions of Halloween, encompasses an account of the Kale stalks–burning nuts–Catching sweethearts in the Stalk Yard–Pulling the corn–winding the Blue Clue–Winnowing the Corn–Sowing the Hemp Seed–And the Cutting of the Apple, with the Conclusion of these Merry Meetings, by telling Wonderful Stories about Witches and Fairies. Written in Scots and English, the poem requires some translation, but as the title relates, it all begins with cabbages, witches only come in at the end, and Halloween is more merry than scary. Over a century later, one of Ellen Clapsaddle’s most sought after Halloween postcards illustrates the Scottish/cabbage connection.
Kale or cabbage-pulling was a particular type of divination tied to one’s marital future: unmarried men and women would go out to the patch and pull up a cabbage, and then bring it back to the farm to uncover its stalk–and the characteristics of their future mate: old or young, tall or short, strong (straight) or weak (crooked). Then the stalks would be hung up in a public place to determine exactly who you would marry: if yours was placed third in line you would marry the third man who walked beneath it. Corn (wheat), nuts, apples—all the fruits of the earth–could reveal all sorts of things if you knew the rituals to tease out their secrets, but Halloween rituals definitely seem to focus on relationships. The cabbage patch customs do cross over the Atlantic (with variations) but the most popular crossover was definitely scrying, or mirror magic. In the modern era, scrying usually involves a crystal ball, but centuries ago it was more generally a process that involved water, glass and/or mirrors. Burns’ poem contains a line where a “wee” lass says I’ll eat an apple at the glass which refers to the custom of gazing into a looking glass in candlelight while eating an apple, which will bring forth the visage of your future conjugal companion, peering over your shoulder. There were lots of variations on this ritual, including one which incorporates three bowls of water (clean, dirty, empty) and a blindfold, and another which calls for the seeker to descend backward down the stairs with mirror in hand (sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary’s Curse”), and yet another in which the maiden flips an apple peel over her shoulder to see her future mate. All of these customs crossed over, but mirrors definitely dominated in modern America.
Mezzotint, 1830s, British Museum: “Place three Plates or other Dishes on the Table, one containing clean water _ another foul _ and the ghird empty _ If the lass [who is / blin]dfolded, put her hand into the clean water, she will soon get a young husband _ If into the foul water, she will [...] / either an old man or a widower _ If into the empty dish, she will die an old maid. // Painted by Alexander Barron. // Engraved by E. Radclyffe.”; 1910 postcard, New York Public Library.
In America, there are fewer visual and literary references to the harvest (except for thoroughly-American pumpkins, of course, as well as apples) and encroaching witches–but all is still relatively merry in the world of turn-of-the century postcards. Things are changing though; the last young woman below looks scared–whether by the sight of the shadowy witch or her future husband, I do not know.
Of course the World Wars will change everything, but the more macabre and ghoulish nature of modern Halloween is hard to imagine when looking at these early 20th century postcards, which portray the holiday in either a whimsical or slightly sarcastic light (see below). But once traditions are torn from their geographical and cultural context and plunged into brave new worlds, their transformation can be frightful.
Good and bad husbands for Halloween: Rose Company postcards, c. 1900-1909, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.