Folklore and Superstitions
Over the many centuries and in every place where Halloween has been celebrated, there have been a variety of traditions and superstitions associated with the holiday.
One of the most enduring aspects of these superstitions is the belief that one can foretell the future on Halloween in one way or another. Halloween was once the bridge between the old year and the new, the dead and the living, the past and the future, so it's natural to think of what the future might bring and to look for possible hints of it. In particular, people have often believed that they can predict the course of their love lives and their future marriages on Halloween night. It might seem a little strange to be thinking of romance on a day associated with ghosts and witches, but few things can have as much of an impact on the course of a person's life as who they choose to share it with. Besides, as the Victorians realized, a Halloween party where lovers could sit together and listen to scary stories or play parlor games in flickering candlelight can make for a pretty romantic atmosphere.
I'll add a disclaimer here that none of these ways of predicting your future spouse are as reliable as simply finding someone who is compatible with you. Do not base your major life decisions off of fortune-telling on Halloween night!
So how does one predict the future on Halloween? Check out the superstitions below!
One of the divination rituals the Celts practiced on Halloween was to drop hot lead into water and to study the shapes that it formed for hints of future events (Bannatyne, Halloween, pp. 34, 36).
The Middle Ages
In Britain, people would walk the streets of villages, ringing bells to warn that there were ghosts abroad. They also carved lanterns out of turnips to frighten away evil spirits. Some people thought that they could hear the devil using the bones of the dead as castanets (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 12).
In Salerno, Italy, people would set out large banquets before going to church. They hoped that the food would all be gone by the time they returned. If it wasn't, it was because the spirits had rejected their hospitality, which was a bad sign (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 12).
In Poland, children would walk through the woods and pray aloud because their parents said that the sound of their prayers would comfort the spirits of the dead.
There was widespread belief in the occult in Colonial America, although the specifics differed between the colonies because the colonists came from many different places and from different religious backgrounds. Colonists in general believed in magic, and every colony laws against practicing it, even while many individuals used various forms of fortune-telling (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 23).
Here are some examples of the different beliefs and superstitions of individual colonies:
Colonists in Virginia were mainly from England and were members of the Church of England. During the 1600s, many of them practiced various forms of divination when they had decisisions to make, including palmistry (which they called chiromancy) and astrology. These practices were carry-overs from England, where they were common folk beliefs. The colonists had books on divination and other occult subjects such as alchemy and herbal magic (Bannatyne, Halloween, pp. 22-23).
Some misfortunes, such as ill luck at hunting, sickness in the family, or the death of crops and livestock, could be attributed to witchcraft. They might resort to using talismans like a horseshoe hung over the door to protect themselves (Bannatyne, Halloween, pp. 23-24).
Massachusetts Bay Colony
Massachusetts was the largest of the New England colonies, and it was settled by Puritans who believed that the Church of England was still influenced too much by Catholicism. The Puritans were strict Calvinists (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 25). As Calvinists, they believed in the idea of predestination, that people's ultimate destinies were already determined and that nothing could be done to change them (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 34). Since people's destinies were already determined, there was no point in praying for the souls of the dead. They did not celebrate Halloween because its origins were both too pagan and too Catholic for their tastes, and they had no holiday to honor deceased ancestors because they were working to build something new and didn't have much interest in the past (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 30).
However, they did believe strongly in the existence of witches, and they feared them. They actively tried and executed people for practicing witchcraft. One of the most famous cases in Massachusetts was the witchcraft trials in Salem Village, where the convicted were hanged or pressed to death (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 31). (On a side note, I wanted to emphasize the method of execution. No one ever burned "witches" in New England. They were typically hung. Yes, still executed, but it always annoys me when people get that wrong.)
The association of witches with Halloween night is a more modern idea in America. The colonists didn't think of the two in that way. However, they did earnestly believe that witches could be responsible for all manner of misfortunes and strange phenomena, from sickness or theft to bizarre hauntings with objects thrown by invisible hands. The Puritans also told ghost stories, but they typically included a moral lesson (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 33).
Although Puritan leaders condemned the practice of fortune-telling, young people did continue to play fortune-telling games. Many of them were ways for girls and young women to predict who they were going to marry. In Marblehead, they would drop iron hobnails into a pot of tallow hanging over a fire, hoping to see the image of their future husband. They also believed that if they threw a ball of yarn out of a window, their future husband might come and pick it up (Bannatyne, Halloween, pp. 34, 36).
Early United States
As in the parts of Britain that celebrated Halloween at the time, some colonists and new immigrants who arrived shortly after the American Revolution, there were people in America who celebrated Halloween under the name of "Snap Apple Night" or "Nut Crack Night" because of the fortune-telling games played on that night (Bannatyne, Halloween, pp. 56-57).
Some Americans also followed the British tradition of the "dumb supper" ("dumb" as in not being able to speak). Girls who wanted to know about their future marriage would prepare a meal completely in silence. Then, they would eat it and receive a visitation from the spirit of their future husband (this didn't mean that the future husband was dead, it was more metaphysical) (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 59).
The British Isles
Many old superstitions remained in Britain for generations after the original Samhain celebrations held by the Celts. Although I have some of them listed by country, many of them were shared between England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Here are some general superstitions:
Young women in the British Isles thought that if they looked into a mirror at midnight on Halloween while holding a candle, they would see their future husband looking over their shoulder (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 73).
Another divination method for learning a girl's future husband was for her to peel an apple, forming one long strip of peel. Then, she would throw the peel over her shoulder. Supposedly, it would form the first initial of her future husband when it landed (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 72).
Some girls would stick apple seeds to their cheeks, naming them after potential lovers. The last one to fall off would indicate the one that she would marry. A variation was for the girl to put them on her eyelids instead. Other girls would heat apple seeds on a stove. The ones that popped indicated which lovers would be unfaithful (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 72).
People in England believed that women who were born on Halloween had the ability to tell the future. In particular, they were supposed to be able to predict the future for people in their own families (Rogers 32).
The prevailing winds on Halloween were believed to be an indication of how harsh the coming winter would be (Rogers 32).
People would look for shapes in the shadows of the churchyard on Halloween to try to predict which of their neighbors would be likely to die in the near future (Rogers 32).
In an effort to predict whether there would be a death soon, people would drop an egg white into a glass of water. If the egg white formed the shape of a shroud, someone was going to die (Rogers 32).
Young women in Derbyshire would put either a crooked sixpence or a rosemary sprig under their pillows on the belief that it would let them see their future husbands in a dream (Rogers 32).
The [deceased's] room must not be swept, or dusted for fear of throwing out the soul, food should be left for it; but any vessel of water should be kept covered, lest the soul should drown in it. The spirits may be heard carrying on their ordinary occupations, weaving, ploughing, or carpentering when they make the circuit of their old dwelling and farms. They must not be spoken to or interefered with; and any passage through the house or farm that they have been accustomed to pass through must never be closed up, otherwise if the spirits meet with an obstacle, they will certainly take their revenge.
-- from Eleanor Hull, Folklore of the British Isles, Methuen & Co., London, 1928, p. 246, (quoted in Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 70)
Women would make a dish called colcannon on Halloween with potatoes, parsnips, and onion. They would add charms to the colcannon that would predict the future for the person who got them in their portion. A coin meant wealth, a ring meant marriage, a doll meant children, and a thimble meant that they would never marry (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 72).
The taste of a kale plant can indicate what type of spouse you were going to have. If it tastes bitter, your spouse will be a bitter person. The shape is also important. A straight shape indicates a straight spine. If there is a lot of dirt stuck to the roots of the plant when you pull it up, your spouse will be rich. These predictions will be much more accurate if the kale is pulled up on Halloween, and even more so if the kale is stolen (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 72). People in Scotland also followed this superstition (Morgan 109).
If a girl hangs a wet blouse up to dry before going to bed, during the night her future husband will come and turn the sleeve (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 76).
If you eat a thimbleful of salt before going to bed, without saying anything, you will see a vision of the person you are going to marry in your dreams. They will offer you a cup of water. If the cup is gold, it will be a rich person. If it's silver, it will be someone only fairly well-off. If it's wood, it will be a poor person (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 77).
Fairies supposedly roamed the land on Halloween, and people wouldn't sweep dust out of their houses or throw out water on Halloween night because that might offend them (Rogers 40 ).
The Victorian Era
During the 1800s, in England and Scotland, teenage girls would bake a small loaf of bannock at midnight on Halloween so they could use it to produce a dream of their future lovers. They had to do the baking without speaking a single word and then take it to their bedroom, walking backward all the way. Some girls would eat the bannock then, and others would put it under their pillows, but whichever they did, they had to remain completely silent throughout in order for the man they loved to appear in their dreams (Morgan p. 108).