Halloween wasn’t always so scary. It was once less about fright and more about flirtation.
A century ago, the rituals surrounding the celebration at the end of October emphasized love. Newspapers recommended parlor games that promised to reveal romantic fortune. Even the cast of characters was more oriented toward matters of the heart.
“Halloween in the early 20th century had far less emphasis on blood, gore and scary monsters, and much more emphasis on courtship, romance and the opportunity for love,” Daniel Gifford, the former manager of museum advisory committees for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History explained in a museum blog post last year.
“In fact, the image of Cupid was often interspersed among the more familiar black cats, witches and jack-o’-lanterns.”
Halloween games and traditions reflected that attention to themes of love, with many offering a peek at what the future holds. For women in a restrictive society, they offered a semblance of control.
“Given the importance of finding a desirable marriageable man in an era when prim, proper, ladylike behavior was the norm, young women often reveled in chances to participate in well-established and -regarded traditions that might guide them to the spouses of their dreams,” Diane Arkins, the author of the book “Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear,” from Pelican Publishing, said in an email.
Here’s a look at some of those largely forgotten customs.
Snap Apple and Other Games of Love
Apples played a starring role in many of Halloween’s romantic traditions.
One game, Snap Apple, challenged participants to use only their teeth to bite an apple suspended from the ceiling by a string or ribbon, Ms. Arkins writes in her book.
The first to succeed would be the first to marry. (In a more dangerous version of the game, the apple is speared by a stick with a lit candle on the opposite end.)
In its heyday, the game was so popular that Halloween was sometimes called Snap Apple Night, according to various reports. But modern Americans may be more familiar with another, similar activity: bobbing for apples.
According to tradition, a successful first attempt at that game — retrieving an apple with one’s mouth from a container filled with water — foretold true love reciprocated, Ms. Arkins writes. Repeated failure suggested that a less-than-ideal match awaited, or perhaps it was a warning to move on.
Other traditions were simpler. One old custom called for cutting a long strip of apple skin and tossing it over one’s shoulder. The landed peel was said to resemble the first initial of a suitor.
Another tradition involved eating an apple in front of a mirror to conjure the image of one’s soul mate, just in time for him or her to ask for the last bite.
The seeds within offered insight, too, with poems serving as guides to what they predicted. Here is one such poem, reproduced by Ms. Arkins and published in the “Kiddies’ Hallowe’en Book” in 1931:
One seed shows you’ll get a letter,Two a dish you’re going to break.Three seeds, you’ll hear some good news,Four, a ride you soon will take.Five, you will be disappointed,Six, you’re going to meet a friend.Seven brings you a surprise,Eight, some money you will spend.Nine shows there’s pleasure coming,Ten, you’ll have something to wear.Eleven, you will take a trip,Twelve, some good luck you will share.Thirteen seeds, you’ll have a fright,Fourteen, your future days are bright.
The Nut Crack Night
Nuts featured prominently enough in Halloween traditions that the day was also sometimes referred to as “Nut Crack Night.”
According to one popular tradition, placing two chestnuts on a stove or fire, each representing a partner in a romantic pairing, would yield insight into the stability of a match.
A pair that cozied up to each other and burned brightly foretold a happy relationship, Utah’s Ogden Standard explained in 1915. But if one nut cracked or popped, that partner’s love could prove fickle.
By adding a third nut, one could compare multiple partners: “The nut which burns longer and more quietly betokens the more constant lover,” the Ogden Standard reported.
In her book, Ms. Arkins describes a different kind of ritual, involving “boats” made of walnut shells filled with wax. Colored candles affixed to each represented potential partners. They were then set in motion in a tub of water, with the candles lit.
The boats that sailed together symbolized a match meant to be. The person whose boat first reached the opposite side would be first to wed. An extinguished candle indicated a lonely future.
Yet another superstition featured a walnut tree. The rules, according to a 1914 article in The Evening Public Ledger in Philadelphia, were straightforward: On a moonlit Halloween night, circle the tree three times while chanting, “Let him that is to be my true love bring me some walnuts.”
Once complete, the participant would see his or her future spouse picking walnuts in the tree.
While apples and nuts featured prominently — harking back to Halloween’s roots as a harvest celebration — other romantic traditions took hold as well.
One game, described by The Evening Public Ledger in 1914, called for a participant to walk backward in bright moonlight while staring into a hand mirror and reciting an incantation. If done properly, the face of his or her future spouse would materialize in the mirror. (In her book, Ms. Arkins describes a similar version of the game involving a mouthful of salt and a backward walk down cellar stairs.)
Another game described in The Ledger involved burying three items — a dime, a ring and a thimble — in mashed potatoes. The food was then served to guests at a party. The guest who received the ring would marry soon; the one with the thimble would spend most of his or her life alone; while the guest who got the dime could expect fame or fortune.
As varied and popular as the romantic Halloween customs were, they began to lose their hold on the American public in the early 20th century.
Women, the traditional party hosts and targets of such games, were gaining greater agency over their lives, eroding the appeal of rituals that underscored their lack of power.
At the same time, a figure re-emerged in popular culture: the powerful witch. And unlike some modern depictions, she was alluring.
“The beautiful witch had both power and attractiveness, and could use both to make her own decisions about romance, suitors and the future of her love life,” Mr. Gifford explained.
The witch had no need for fortunetelling games: She could create her own destiny.