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Victorian Halloween Games

Updated on October 30, 2014
"Snap Apple Night" Divination games being played on All Hallows Eve in Blarney, Ireland.
"Snap Apple Night" Divination games being played on All Hallows Eve in Blarney, Ireland. | Source

The Beginnings of a Romantic Halloween

The first recordings regarding the use of divination comes from the written accounts of Celtic mythology, compiled by Irish monks. The Druids would foretell the future on the Eve of Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) when the veil between this world and that of the spirit world was at it's thinnest. The most sacred areas of divination were oak forests and by pools of water. As time went by, the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales continued to practice the pagan religions that had been passed down through the centuries. Slowly, as the Catholic Church gained more power; European and British Celts were converted to Christianity. It was the Irish, never having been concurred by Rome, who proved the most reluctant and difficult to convert. Eventually Pope Gregory I sent a letter, advising priests who were converting the peoples of Ireland, to simply rename the pagan customs and beliefs as Christian. Thanks to the practice of appropriating pagan beliefs and rituals, the Catholic Church preserved many customs for centuries, that might otherwise have died out.

A group of young people playing on snap apple night.
A group of young people playing on snap apple night.

One does not usually associate Halloween with a time for matchmaking and romance. For the Victorian's however, this was the perfect time of year for a young girl to divine her fortunes, and catch a glimpse of her future sweetheart. In the mid 1800's waves of Irish, Scottish, and Scots-Irish peoples immigrated to America, bringing with them centuries old beliefs in All Hallows Eve. The Victorians of the emerging Middle Classes soon took notice of the newly imported traditions among these immigrants, many of whom worked for them as servants and laborers. The Victorians refined much of the beliefs, specifically the Catholic Irish associations. Discarding the religious aspects, they embraced a romantic, secularized reinterpretation of the holiday instead.

Bobbing for apples.
Bobbing for apples.
Snap Apple.
Snap Apple.

Bobbing for Apples and Apple Pairing

The most popular games involved apples. There were a variety of variations to the game, with influences from Ireland, Scotland and England. The most well known, even today, is the classic 'bobbing for apples'. Tubs made of wood or metal were filled with water, and apples were placed inside. When the game was played as a fortune telling device the apples would either be carved with a letter or an item would be placed inside of them; such as a small note or a coin. The apple itself might be a prize. The person who successfully recovered an apple would put it under their pillow, in the hopes that a vision of their future mate would be shown to them while they slept. If coins were added then a small monetary prize was also gained. If a note was found and it could be guessed who had written it, then the pair was destined to wed. The first to grab an apple without a stem would be the first to marry, and anyone lucky enough to snatch an apple would have a happy life.

A variation of this game was to hang apples with string or ribbon from the ceiling. This version was commonly referred to as 'snap apple' and in many places the nights itself was referred to as 'snap apple night' instead of Hallowe'en. Each apple would be labeled with a letter or name corresponding to a member of the party. The person 'snapping' was blindfolded, with their hands bound behind their back. If they were lucky enough to find and successfully snap an apple down, they would enjoy the same fortunes found in the 'bobbing for apples' version.

Apple pairing.
Apple pairing.

Another form of divining was 'apple pairings'. This divination game foretold who one's future mate would be. One started by peeling an apple, waving it over one's head three times, then flinging it over the left shoulder. Once it landed on the floor one looked to see what letter the peel had formed. The letter would be the same as the first name of the man or woman they would marry. Variations include: putting the peel in a bowl of water and seeing what letter would form; or hanging the peel over a doorway and the first person to enter would be their future mate.

Apples and Divination on Halloween

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The Fortunes of Nuts

Fortunetelling games have their roots in Celtic societies from more than 3000 years ago. The Celts revered Oak trees as sacred spaces, and many of their religious sites have been found in Oak groves. The fruit of the Oak tree, acorns, were used by the Druids in their attempts to foretell fortunes of good or ill for the community. The Celtic practices and beliefs held strong, especially in Ireland, surviving through the centuries.

Divination games of the Victorian Era that utilize nuts vary depending on the region the game is from. Therefore, there are many variations on how to perform the divination, the interpretations and meanings, and what type of nuts were used. Chestnuts and walnuts were the most commonly used while acorns, though mentioned in poems and rhymes, do not often factor into the games themselves.The following fortunetelling games were influenced by various customs throughout the British Isles and Ireland.

A group of children roasting nuts over a fire to foretell their futures on All Hallows Eve.
A group of children roasting nuts over a fire to foretell their futures on All Hallows Eve.


1. For the girl who is torn between two lovers. Three chestnuts were placed, either on a grate by a fireplace, or in a skillet over a hot stove. One was marked with the initial of the girl performing the divination; the second and third were initialed with one of the potential suitors.

Outcomes: If one of the suitors chestnuts jumps and bursts, then he will be unfaithful. If one of the suitors chestnuts blazes and burns, then he has a regard for the girl performing the divination. If the girl's chestnut and a chestnut from one of the suitors burns together, then they will marry with in the year.

2. Another divination method was to place two chestnuts in the a skillet or a grate by the fireplace. One was marked for the girl seeking her romantic fortunes, and the other for the man of her interests. The chestnuts were left to roast, side by side, the observers would watch to see which way the chestnuts would move.

Outcomes: If the chestnuts turned away from each other at the crown, then there was uncertainty about the relationships future. If the chestnuts jumped away from one another, then despair was predicted, and the relationship was doomed. If the chestnuts turned towards each other, from the body of the chestnut, then the couple was promised a happily ever after.

Scottish themed postcards were popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods in America.
Scottish themed postcards were popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods in America.


1. Some divination games involving nuts had a 'hide and seek' quality to them. One version states that a variety of matching seeds such as; peas, beans, etc, were died and then placed inside a walnut. The two shells were then sealed together with a ribbon or string and divided into two boxes, one for women and one for men. The game was to find the person who had picked the corresponding seed that had been found. The implication being that the person you found was your future intended.

2. In another divination game walnut shells were divided in half and then filled with wax and wicks or small candles. Each half shell was named for a member of the party and floated in a large pan or tub of water. As these makeshift boats floated to and away from one another, the participants foretold their future relationships. The first person's candle to blow out would remain unmarried.

3. This Irish custom used either chestnuts or walnuts, which were then filled with different colored paper, leaving a few empty ones. The shells were then sealed together with wax and set aside in a basket. At midnight the party goers would pick a nut, hold it over a lighted candle until the wax had melted and the colors were revealed. Red = love, Pink = an affectionate nature, Green = possession of land, Yellow = money, and an empty shell meant a life of hard work.

At midnight on All Hallows Eve.
At midnight on All Hallows Eve. | Source

One custom involved an unmarried person going to a Walnut tree or Oak tree, at midnight, on Halloween. They were to circle the tree three times, each time chanting, "Let him (her) that is to be my true love bring me some walnuts." The 'spirit' of one's intended would then be seen in the tree collecting walnuts.

Walking down a flight of stairs. At the 13th step, using the candle and mirror, the young lady looks over her left shoulder to see her beloved.
Walking down a flight of stairs. At the 13th step, using the candle and mirror, the young lady looks over her left shoulder to see her beloved. | Source

Mirrors and Candles

The Druids used water as a means of peering through the veil on the Eve of Samhain to foretell the fortunes of the coming year. The pagan beliefs and customs transferred and thrived within the Catholic church and the people continued to use bodies of water and mirrors to divine their fortunes at midnight on All Hallows Eve. As immigrants from Ireland came over to America, they brought with them the various divining practices, which used a mirror to foretell one's future sweetheart. When one sees the "reflection" of beloved it is understood that what is being seen is their spirit. Here are a few of the most popular variations that they Victorian's made popular in America.

1. At midnight on Halloween a young lady with a candle and mirror in hand, walked backwards down a staircase. Once at the bottom steps, she was to use the reflecting candle and mirror to look over her left shoulder. There she would see the reflection of her beloved.

2. A slight variation has the young lady walking into a dark room at midnight on Halloween. Using the mirror and candle, she looked over her left shoulder to catch a glimpse of her beloved. Hand held mirrors could be used for either version, while vanities and full length mirrors are often used with this version.

3. Another popular version had a young person going out at midnight in the light of the moon. In the moonlight, a person was to look over their left shoulder, (with or without the aid of a mirror), and the person's beloved would appear.

There are variations within the rituals themselves. Some accounts say that each step must be counted, until the 13th step was reached, at which point the reflection of one's intended would be seen. Another states that the young woman should be barefoot with her hair let loose. As she recites a verse the image of her future husband will appear in her mirror. A last variation states that as a woman stands in front of a mirror, combing her hair at midnight, she will see the reflection of her intended.

A playful postcard depicting the ritual of the Barmbrack Cake.
A playful postcard depicting the ritual of the Barmbrack Cake.

The Barmbrack Cake and Luggie Bowls

The Barmbrack Cake, which originated in Ireland, is a fruit cake or loaf. The hostess would put 5 tokens inside of the cake. The "Dame of Halloween" ( a married woman, often the hostess) would slice the cake and give pieces to each of her unmarried guests. Those lucky enough to find a hidden trinket would learn their fortunes. Possible trinkets and their meanings were varied. A ring: marriage within the year, a rag: spinsterhood and/or poverty, a pea: poverty, a bean: wealth, a coin: wealth, a thimble: a woman would earn her own living.

The Druids believed that the future could be foretold by looking into a pool of water. In Scotland, this belief of the Celts was captured in the Luggie Bowls. The Luggie Bowls were comprised of three bowls, each containing a different liquid. One of clean water, one of soapy water (or in some versions dirty water), and one empty. The participant was blindfolded, and sat or stood before the Luggie Bowls. Using the left forefinger, the first bowl touched predicted the persons fortunes. The clean bowl predicted that they would marry and be happy. The soapy water predicted that they would marry a widow or widower; or in other versions, that they would marry an old, but wealthy man (woman). In versions with the dirty bowl, it was predicted that they would marry, but they would be unhappy. And an empty bowl predicted that they would never marry.

A postcard depicting the Luggie Bowls divination game.
A postcard depicting the Luggie Bowls divination game.
Halloween postcard depicting Victorian Halloween customs.
Halloween postcard depicting Victorian Halloween customs.

Cabbage and Kale

Scottish lore is full of fortune-telling practices, a favorite being the pulling of cabbages at midnight on All Hallows Eve. All one needed was a garden of cabbages to play the game. At midnight those who sought there fortunes would gather together in a cabbage patch and pull the one they thought would be luckiest. In some variations the person was also blindfolded. In some variations cabbages were named for a member of the party by the host, then at midnight, each member of the party went out to the cabbage patch to pick their fortunes. After the cabbages were pulled and examined they were hung over a doorway of the pullers house and the first man to enter would bear the name of the future husband (wife).

Scottish inspired postcards were popular in America during the late 1800's and early 1900's.
Scottish inspired postcards were popular in America during the late 1800's and early 1900's.

The divination of the cabbages and their roots were based of of what color they were as well as their shape and size. How much dirt clung to the roots as well as how the cabbage tasted also foretold one's future prospects. If the cabbage head was white, the future mate would be older than the puller; if the head was green, the future mate would be younger than the puller; if a large amount of dirt clung to the cabbage, then the puller would have a great amount of fortune and good luck; if the cabbage was bitter to the taste, the puller would have a very difficult life; if the cabbage was light and clean, then heaven was promised; if a dark and heavy cabbage was pulled, then hell lurked in one's future. In some versions the shape of the stalk would correlate with the shape of the future spouse such as long and thin or short and stout.

Some of the cabbage rituals involved eating dished cooked with cabbage. For example, if a young lady was successful in persuading a potential mate to eat a dish of cabbage then a marriage would certainly take place within the year. While a custom found in Massachusetts stated that a girl should steel a cabbage at midnight on Halloween. As she pulled the cabbage out of the ground she would see the 'spirit' of her future husband, or she would meet him on the way home.

A pair of women out in a garden on Halloween.
A pair of women out in a garden on Halloween.

Kale was also a fortunetelling game that involved pulling up a vegetable to divine one's future. It was customary that people went in pairs and walked hand in hand through a field of kale, preferably a field owned by a bachelor or spinster, with their eyes closed. They then would pull a bushel full of kale and divine their future fortunes from the harvest they had collected. A strait stock foretold that the persons future spouse would be tall and handsome. If dirt clung to the kale then a great amount of wealth was promised. The heart of the stem foretold the disposition of the future mate; sweet, sour, bitter, soft, hard, brittle, etc. The kale was then nailed to the doorway of the puller, and the first person to enter was their future mate. If a married person entered first then the letter of their first name would be the same as the pullers future mate's.

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