When I was a kid, my parents had a peculiar Halloween tradition. Every Halloween, after my sister and I had returned home with our hard-earned candy, my parents levied a Candy Tax against us. We were told that this national tax was paid in exchange for parents inspecting the heaps of Halloween candy children received through trick-or-treating. I went years believing this boldfaced lie, reluctantly “paying” my candy tax of mini Milky Ways and boxes of Dots, while Tootsie Rolls were tax exempt. It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a hilarious and kind of messed-up tradition that was.
I’d be lying If I said I wasn’t going to do it to my kids.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Halloween traditions, especially since I’ve been researching for my #OctoberBloggingBlitz. During research, I stumbled across a lot of old Halloween traditions that have been largely forgotten in America. A lot of these old traditions were games and silly fortune telling party tricks, something Victorians would have enjoyed back in the day. But that doesn’t mean they should have stayed forgotten.
It made me think of my own Halloween traditions. I celebrate the widely-observed American traditions, like handing out candy and imbibing heavily at Halloween parties, but I have my own quirky little traditions. I re-read Frankenstein every October. About two weeks before Halloween, I break out my own personal Halloween playlist to listen on repeat. With each Halloween, I add little rituals and traditions to my celebration.
That’s one of the great things about holidays, especially one as dynamic as Halloween—you can create whatever traditions you want.
And if you’re looking for any ideas, I’ve picked out some my favorite examples of old Halloween traditions. I wouldn’t recommend reinstating all of these traditions, so I’ve included my (hopefully) helpful commentary.
“A splendid game, and one specially suitable for a large party. A sheet or white tablecloth is first of all stretched right across the room, and on a table behind it is placed a bright lamp.
All the other lights in the room are then extinguished, and one of the players takes a seat upon a low stool midway between the lamp and the sheet. The other players endeavor to disguise themselves as much as possible, by distorting their features, rumpling their hair, wearing wigs, false noses, etc., and pass one by one behind the player seated on the stool. Their shadows are thus thrown upon the sheet.
The aim of the seated player is to guess the identity of the shadows as they pass before him; and the aim of the others is to endeavor by every means in their power to keep him from recognizing them. As may be imagined, the task of the single player is not an easy one, the distorted shadows being vastly different from the originals as seen before the lights were extinguished.”
This game sounds pretty fun! It even sounds like it’s age-flexible: simple and chaste enough for young kids but easily more adult-friendly with the addition of alcohol. “Shadow Buff” doesn’t need a lot of set-up and doesn’t make a mess. There’s a great opportunity for people to really ham it up exaggerating certain traits and faking mannerisms. It would be fun to switch costumes with another partygoer to really confuse the person guessing. You could even make this into a drinking game where the person who guesses has to drink whenever the make an incorrect guess.
For children, you can keep score of who gets the most correct guesses and award prizes accordingly.
Verdict: Bring it Back!
Apples and Flour
“Suspend horizontally from ceiling a stick three feet long. On one end stick an apple, upon other tie small bag of flour. Set stick whirling. Each guest takes turn in trying to bite apple-end of stick. It is amusing to see guests receive dabs of flour on the face. Guest who first succeeds in biting apple gets prize.”
Really? It’s amusing to watch guests “receive dabs of flour” in the face? Maybe so, but I wouldn’t want to play. This game tries to convince you it will be a little gentle nudge to the face, but really this sounds like it could be a lot more annoying. You know what’s not amusing? Catching an apple or a bag of flour to the face. With all those “whirling” applies and Ziploc baggies of flour, things probably will get messy. Who’s going clean that up?
No offense to people who celebrated Halloween at the turn of the century, but this game sounds like the kind of weird stuff really bored or really drunk people come up with. Probably both.
Verdict: Leave it in the past!
Bobbing for Apples
“Into one tub half filled with water are placed apples to the stems of which are tied bits of paper containing the names of the boys present at the party, while across the room is a similar tub in which the names of the girls are placed. With hands tied behind them the young folks endeavor to extricate the apples with their teeth, and it is alleged that the name appearing upon the slip fastened to the apple is the patronymic of the future helpmeet of the one securing the fruit from the receptacle.”
I’ve bobbed for apples once in my entire life, and it wasn’t fun. It was challenging, water got everywhere, and I didn’t even want to eat my apple because it had been in water that everyone else’s faces and open mouths had been in. It’s not hygienic and it makes a huge mess, which is enough for me to give this tradition a hard pass here and now.
You should also consider that, if you’re playing this game for its intended purpose of meeting a future lover, there are additional pitfalls. First, you have no idea whose apple you’ll pull out of the bucket. What if it’s the weird kid at the party? Or if you do pick a suitable person, how are you expected to flirt them, dripping wet with half-washed off makeup smeared over your face? And after you spent all that time and effort to get your costume looking just right? Ew. No, really, that’s ok. Normal flirting will do just fine, since we don’t live in such a sexually repressed society and don’t need contrived excuses to talk to our crushes.
Verdict: Leave it in the past! Hard pass.
In America, colcannon is normally associated with St. Patrick’s Day, as it is our catch-all holiday for all things Irish. However, in Ireland, colcannon is and has been a traditional Irish dish served on Halloween. Colcannon is a mashed potato dish, with butter and cooked greens like kale or cabbage mixed in.
How did colcannon become associated with Halloween? It was a little fortune telling game, like everything else about Halloween. Before colcannon was prepared, the cook would send a girl to garden to pick a head of cabbage for the dish. Before serving it, the cook would hide a ring in the colcannon. Whoever was served colcannon with the ring inside would be the next person to get married!
So think of colcannon as similar to King’s Cake, that delicious and sugary Mardi Gras cake, only instead of cake, you eat mashed potatoes and veggies, and instead of a little plastic baby, you get married!
Some recipes are a little more exciting, calling for the addition of onions, scallions, leaks, or bacon. Those modifications make colcannon sound much more palatable, though even the jazzed-up version of this dish reminds me of healthy loaded baked potato or potato salad.
Verdict: Leave it in the Past! I’ll stick to candy, thanks. There are already plenty of opportunities to eat potato salad.
A sweet fruit bread served on Halloween, barmbrack is also a traditional Irish treat. It’s prepared like a traditional sweet bread with added currants, raisins, and other small dried fruits. I found a recipe here, and I can’t wait to try it. Barmbrack sounds tasty and much more appealing that colcannon.
Barmbrack involves hiding objects in the cake like colcannon. In order to properly observe the barmbrack tradition, one must add a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a coin, and a ring to the cake batter. Of course, finding different objects means certain things. Finding the pea means a person will not marry that year while finding the stick means a person has an unhappy marriage. If a person finds the cloth it means they will experience poverty, while finding the coin means they will come into some money in the near future. And of course, finding the ring means a person will get married within a year.
Verdict: Bring it back! Barmbrack sounds like a hearty, autumnal food that will put you in the spirit of the season. I’d suggest leaving everything but the ring out of it. Or hell, maybe make up your own tradition and bake other little tokens into your barmbrack.
I talked a little bit about soul cakes in my history of Halloween post. To recap, in the 19th century, when people went door to door “souling” and offering to pray for the inhabitants of a house, the homeowners gave out these little cakes as thanks for the prayers. Souling and soul cakes are the early versions of our trick-or-treating and candy tradition.
Thus, it seems appropriate to include these cookies in any Halloween plans you might have. From examining the recipe, I feel like soul cakes are spiced sugar cookies, with cinnamon, nutmeg, and all spice, all of which I love. If you can bake at all, this recipe should be a cinch. Despite their origins, however, I would not pass out soul cakes to trick-or-treaters, since you don’t want to end up like Jean Weir from Freaks And Geeks and watch your homemade cookies rejected and thrown on your lawn because people are worried about poisoned treats.
Verdict: Bring it back! These are perfect Halloween cookies!
I recently wrote about my love of campfires and how much I miss sitting around a fire with friends. sharing ghost stories. There’s an elemental quality to a fire that speaks to us on a primal level. After all, we’ve been huddled around one type of fire or another since the beginning of history. It seems logical to bring back Halloween fires, especially considering how important bonfires were in the early Samhain celebrations.
Now, I’m not advocating for huge bonfires, because 1) who has that much space? and 2) bonfires can be VERY dangerous.
However, I think we could easily bring this tradition back with a few modifications. You can use a fireplace if you have access to one. Maybe you have a fire pit in your backyard (or can build a makeshift one). If you are pressed for space, I would gather a few lit candles on a table, turn out the lights, and make that your fire for the evening.
Verdict: Bring it back! Tell ghost stories! Roast marshmallows!
“Each guest, receiving apple and knife, is requested to peel apple without breaking; then swing paring around head, and let it drop to floor. The letter formed is initial of future mate’s name. Or, you may hang your paring over door–the first of opposite sex to pass under will be your mate.”
I like the idea of this one, but I am bored and disappointed that most of old Halloween rituals were about how to get married, when you would get married, and who you would get married to. I understand, since young people in that time didn’t have the freedom to hang out and casually date each other. But this is a different era, and the focus of those games is no longer relevant.
I offer a new twist: instead of asking questions about future spouses, why can’t we play this same game but with more questions? For example, what career will I grow up to have? Who will win on The Bachelor? Who will win the election? The sky’s the limit, and it will make the game more inclusive and interesting.
Verdict: Bring this one back, with modified questions!
“Each person melts some lead and pours it through a wedding-ring or key into a dish of water. The lead will cool in various shapes, supposed to be prophetic. Any ingenious person will interpret the shapes, and furnish much amusement for the listeners; thus, a bell-shaped drop indicates a wedding within a year; a drop resembling a torch or lamp signifies fame; a pen or ink-bottle, that the future companion is to be an author; a horn of plenty, wealth; a bag or trunk, travel; etc.”
Again, I really like the concept of this one. It’s a new way to play a fortune-telling game and the final result is open for lots interpretation. Everyone could potentially see something different in the bowl, which could lead to hours of giddy conversations about the shapes and their meanings. It’s really a very cool idea, and one that probably looks beautiful as well.
However, molten lead? Really? What the hell were people in the 19th Century thinking? Where do you even get molten lead nowadays? Please don’t try to bust out some molten lead in the middle of your Halloween party. That’s a terrible idea.
I’ve heard you can substitute the lead for an egg yolk, which is an infinitely better, safer, cheaper option. Simply separate the yolk from the white before dropping into the water. Be careful not to pop the yolk before you drop it in!
Verdict: Bring it back, with certain changes!
What Halloween traditions to you celebrate? Do you have any old Halloween traditions to recommend?