Halloween isn’t a holiday that exactly screams romance. Yet, for turn-of-the-century Victorians, Oct. 31 provided an excuse for matchmaking, parties and parlor games.

The ghoulish and gruesome sights and sounds familiar to us today didn’t come into vogue until well into the 20th century. Until then, Halloween activities revolved around parlor games designed to tell the future, especially when it came to romance.

Divination was said to attain its highest power on Halloween, and the evening was full of romantic possibilities. Middle- and upper-class families hosted parties aimed at young adults, not children.

Games said to foretell a future mate were especially popular on those evenings. Some of the more popular games included:

n Put a nut (or more, depending on how many lovers a person has) into a fire. If the nut jumps, the lover would be unfaithful. If the nut burned a little, the lover will have to be watched closely. But if it burns all the way through, the lover is worth keeping.

n Walk slowly away from a mirror in the dark, candle in hand, moonlight preferably at your back. An image of your future lover will appear behind your shoulder in the reflection.

n Wet a shirt sleeve and hang it to dry by the fire. Watch it, and at midnight an apparition of a future lover will appear.

n Suspend a wedding ring or key on a string inside a glass. Say the alphabet slowly. When the object strikes the glass, note the letter and start over again. This way, the name of a future mate will be spelled out.

Other games were played, too. Many incorporated apples, as Halloween followed in the pattern of harvest festivals celebrated for centuries. Bobbing for apples was a popular game. Another involved hanging an apple from a string in a doorway. The first person to take a bite from it (without using hands) wins a prize.

Or, cut open an apple at its core. If only two seeds are found, that portends early marriage. Three, legacy; four, great wealth; five, a sea voyage; six, great fame as an orator or singer; seven, possession of any gift most desired.

For the more morbid, place stones in dying embers of a fire. Give each stone a name of a person at the party. If, in the morning, any stones are displaced, the death of the person represented by that stone is prophesied within the year.

These type of Victorian society games celebrating the lighter side of Halloween was a shift in thinking from previous years. Halloween as a holiday isn’t that old — widespread celebrations were first recorded around 1870. Around this time, American society was becoming more secular. As a result, the Victorians distanced themselves from dark images of death and evil, fire and brimstone. Up until then, a holiday celebrating spirits and fortune-telling was considered sacrilegious.

“To colonial Americans, evil was a reality. Witches and the devil were real. As Americans became more secular, there became a distance between reality and myth,” says Melodie Andrews, a history professor at Minnesota State University.

In Mankato, along with the romantic parties, Halloween also was an excuse to partake in mischief “the tricks” we’re familiar with today.

On Halloween 1899, according The Mankato Free Press, the night was cold, but boys and girls were reported out on the streets, making a loud racket with horns and tin pans. Anything mobile was moved to a different spot and street signs were removed.

Another newspaper account from 1900 reported: “Scores of young people were out, participating in the merry-making, and gates were unhinged, culvert covers pulled up, and carriages run off. A hay rack was found at the corner of Front and Washington streets this morning. A lot of wood in the hay market was tipped over. Steps were taken off houses, loose articles took wings, and in one or two places wire was stretched across the sidewalk to stop or trip the unwary. Not much damage was done.”

That night, day police were on duty to assist the night police, but no arrests were made. “It was not easy to catch youngsters, as part of the crowd would be on the lookout for the blue coats while the remainder were executing some mischievous design.”

In the late 1800s, there was a move to make Halloween more of a community gathering, suitable for children. In Mankato, parent-teacher organizations often held parties at the schools. These parties focused on games and treats, and any scary images of Halloween were erased.

In a way, society has come full circle. The isolated incidents of razor blades or cyanide in Halloween candy in the past couple of decades has led to fewer door-to-door holiday traditions and more community-centered events. Andrews says she hardly sees any little kids whom she doesn’t know come to her door on Halloween.

“We lost our innocence,” she says.

React to this story:

React to this story:


Recommended for you