New Hampshire Tidbits: More Ghostly and Mystical Halloween Traditions

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. “The ghostly gathering.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

“The following extract from an English book of antiquities and popular customs, gives a very interesting account of the ancient manner of celebrating the day or rather night. The celebration of the day has somewhat died out but there are doubtless many in Nashua who will tonight, in some small way, take note of the fact that it is Halloween.

There is perhaps no night in the year which the popular imagination has stamped with a more peculiar character than the evening of the 31st of October, known as All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en. It is clearly a relic of pagan times for there is nothing in the church observance of the Day of All Saints to have originated such extraordinary notions as are connected with this celebrated festival, or such remarkable practices as those by which it is distinguished.

The leading idea respecting Halloween is that it is the time, of all others, when supernatural influences prevail. It is the night set apart for a universal walking abroad of spirits, both of the visible and invisible worked; for, as will be afterwards seen, one of the special characteristics attributed to this mystical evening, is the faculty conferred on the immaterial principle in humanity to detach itself from its corporeal tenement and wander abroad through the realms of space. Divination is then believed to attain its highest power, and the gift asserted by Glendower of calling spirits ‘from the vasty deep,’ becomes available to all who choose to avail themselves of the privileges of the occasion.

“Wanderers of the Wold,” from The Oracle, Vol VIII published by Senior Class of Southwestern Normal, Weatherford, Oklahoma, 1919

There is a remarkable uniformity in the fireside customs of this night all over the United Kingdom. Nuts and apples are everywhere in requisition, and consumed in immense numbers. Indeed the name of Nutcrack night, by which Halloween is known in the north of England, indicates the predominance of the former of these articles in making up the entertainments of the evening. They are not only cracked and eaten, but made the means of ratiocination in love affairs. And here we quote from Burn’s poem on Halloween.

The auld guid-wife’s weel-hoordit nuts
Are round an’ round divided,
An’ mony lads an’ lasses’ fates
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle couthie side by side,
And burn the gither trimly;
Some start awa wi’ saucy pride,
An’ jump out owre the chimlie
Fu’ high that night.
[Burning the nuts is a favorite charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire; and according as they burn quietly together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.]
Project Gutenberg’s Poems And Songs Of Robert Burns,

Brand, in his Popular Antiquities, is more explicit. “It is a custom in Ireland, when the young women would know if their lovers are faithful, to put three nuts upon the bards of the gate, naming the nuts after the lovers. If a nut cracks or jumps, the lover will prove unfaithful, if it begins to glaze or burn, he has a regard for the person making the trial. If the nuts named after the girl and her lover burn together, they will be married.”

Photograph: “Boys eating apples off strings,” Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection [ca 1934-1956].

As to apples, there is an old custom, perhaps still over-used in some localities on this merry night, of hanging up a stick horizontally by a string from the ceiling, and putting a candle on the one end, and an apple on the other. The stick being made to twirl rapidly, the merry-makers in succession leap up and snatch at the apple with their teeth (no use of the hands being allowed), but it very frequently happens that the candle comes round before they are aware, and scorches them in the face, or anoints them with grease. The disappointments and misadventures occasion, of course, abundance of laughter. But the grand sport with apples on Halloween is to set them afloat in a tub of water, into which the juveniles, by turns, duck their heads with the view of catching an apples. Great fun goes on in watching the attempts of the youngster in the pursuit of the swimming fruit, which wriggles from side to side of the tub, and evades all attempts to capture it; whilst the disappointed aspirant is obliged to abandon the chase in favor of another, whose turn has now arrived. The apples provided with stalks are generally caught first and then comes the tug of war to win those which possess no such appendages. Some competitor will deftly suck up the apple, if a small one, into their mouths. Others plunge manfully overhead in pursuit of a particular apple, and having forced it to the bottom of the tub, seize it firmly with their teeth, and emerge, dripping and triumphant with their prize. This venturous procedure is generally rewarded with a ‘hurrah’ by the lookers-on, and is recommended by those versed in Halloween-aquatics, as the only sure methods of attaining success. In recent years a practice has been introduced, probably by some tender mammas, timorous on the subject of their offspring catching cold, of dropping a fork from a height into the tub among the apples, and thus turning the sport into a display of marksmanship. It forms, however, but a very indifferent substitute for the joyous merriment of ducking and diving.

It is somewhat remarkable, that the sport of ducking for apples it not mentioned by Burns, whose celebrated poem of Halloween presents so graphic a picture of the ceremonies practiced on that evening in the west of Scotland, in the poet’s day. Many of the rites there described are now obsolete or nearly so, but two or three still retain place in various parts of the country. Among these is the custom still prevalent in Scotland as the initiatory Halloween ceremony, of pulling kailstocks or stalks of colewort. The young people go out hand-in-hand, blindfolded, into the kailyard or garden, and each pulls the first stalk which he meets with. They then return to the fireside to inspect their prizes. According as the stalk is big or little, straight or crooked, so shall the future wife or husband be of the party by whom it is pulled. The quantity of earth sticking to the root denotes the amount of fortune or dowry; and the taste of the pith or emetic indicates the temper. Finally, the stalks are placed, one after another, over the door, and the Christian names of the person who chance thereafter to enter the house are held in the same mementos to indicate those of the individuals when the parties are to marry.” –Nashua Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1892, page 5


Wood engraving, 1886. The Ghost Story, by Frank French. Black ink on tissue
paper. New Hampshire Historical Society. Used with permission.

31 October 1895 – Milford Daily Pointer newspaper, Milford NH, page 2

“This evening is “All Halloween,” with its ghostly and mystical traditions. It is the night pre-eminent when young maids, and old ones too, seek to pierce the future and catch a glimpse of the man they hope fate has destined them to marry.

It takes a girl with nerve to try some of the weird plans devised to reveal the future. It isn’t every young girl who has the hardihood to descend the cellar stairs backward with a lighted candle in one hand and a highly polished dressing-case mirror in the other, peering all the while into the shadow-reflecting surface of the glass. The girl who can do this without having to resort to smelling salts afterwards is certainly not afraid of a mouse nor “anybody else.”

Sometimes the descent is made with an unlighted match instead of a candle. When the furthest and darkest corner of the cellar is reached the young woman quickly strikes the match and looks sharply into the mirror.

If she be at all imaginative and her spirits are elated, she is apt to fancy that she sees all manner of weird things.” The foregoing applies rather to the flint and steel era before friction matches were invented; we suppose that the girl of nowadays disdains such use of glass and candle and is out on her wheel of fortune.

Perhaps rather the boy now cuddles to the heated stove and watches the not overripe chestnuts he places there-on. The chestnuts are perhaps named Polly, Maryann and Betsey (his favorites)– And he eagerly waits to see if two of them will pop off, and Polly, for instance, remains and will burn with love!!

What did you say; “silly?”


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