BY OLIVE THORNE
From the October 1879 edition of St. Nicholas, pp. 783-784
FROM the earliest times men have been trying to look ahead. The ancient Egyptians had oracles where their gods were supposed to answer the questions of men by dreams and other ways; the ancient Greeks also had famous oracles, which people came from far-off lands to consult; the Romans killed certain fowls or animals, and guessed at the future by the looks of their internal organs; the Hebrews and the Babylonians had their own peculiar ways of finding out what was to happen. The world has not yet outgrown the longing to look ahead. The Hindu today sets a lamp afloat on his sacred river, and judges of the future by the length of time it burns; the Chinaman consults his "wise men," who pretend to understand signs; the ignorant African takes notice of the cries of birds and animals; the English--not long ago--tried to learn by help of what they call "witches"; and Spiritualists, even now, believe the predictions of a "medium."
No serious attempt to look into the future has been made for a long time by intelligent people, and the old customs have become a frolicsome trying of "charms," especially on one night of the year. It is curious enough that the night selected is the eve of the festival of All Saints, which was established in the seventh century by a pope of Rome, in honor of all the saints who had no particular day assigned to them. The Romans brought this festival to England; there it became All Hallows, and the evening before it, Hallow-even or Halloween, and that was the night sacred to charms and games. In the seventeenth century, England gave up the night to feasting and frolicking. Nuts and apples were plenty from one end of the island to the other, and "Nut-crack Night" was the name given to it.
In England, the revels were for fun, such as diving for apples floating in a tub of water, and, of course, getting very wet; or trying to snatch in the teeth an apple on one end of a stick, which had a lighted candle at the other end, and, being hung by a string, could be spun around very fast, so that the players often seized the candle instead of the fruit; or a playful fortune-telling by naming nuts, roasting them before the fire, and watching their conduct when heated,--whether they burned steadily, or bounced away, or burst with a noise, each movement of the charmed nut being of great importance.
One nut test was tried by grinding and mixing together a walnut, hazel-nut, and nutmeg, making into pills, with butter and sugar, and swallowing them on going to bed. Wonderful dreams would follow (which was not surprising).
In superstitious Scotland, the night was given entirely to serious and sometimes frightful attempts to peer into the future by means of charms. One way of trying fortune was to throw a ball of blue yarn out of a window, and wind it into a ball again from the other end. Near the last something would hold it fast, when the winder must ask: "Who holds?" The answer would name one who was to have importance in the questioner's future.
Another Scotch custom was "pulling kale-stalks." A young person went blindfolded into the garden, pulled up the first kale or cabbage stalk he touched, and carried it into the house. The whole future was read from that stalk: the size indicated the stature of the future partner in life; the quantity of earth at the roots showed the amount of his, or her, fortune; the taste of the pith told what the temper would be; and when the stalk was placed over the door, the first name of the person entering was the fated name.
The island of Lewes, on the coast of Scotland, had some curious customs. Young women made a "dumb cake," and baked it before the fire with certain ceremonies and in perfect silence, expecting to see wonders; and the people also sacrificed to a sea-god called Shong, throwing a cup of ale into the sea, and calling on him to give them plenty of sea-weed to enrich their grounds.
In another Scotch trial, a girl would go into a barn, holding a winnowing sieve, and stand alone, with both doors open, to see her fate.
The fashion of trying charms is now nearly outgrown among English-speaking people. It survives in America as a pleasant frolic for a social gathering. In our own day, young people "sow hemp-seed," "eat apples before the glass," "go down the cellar stairs backward," holding a candle and a mirror. They also "pop chestnuts," "launch walnut-shells" holding tapers, and try the "three-saucer" test of the future.
In some of our cities, the boys on Halloween collect old tea-kettles, boots, large stones, etc., and deposit them in clean vestibules, ringing the doorbell and running away.
Thus the 31st of October--set apart by a pope as a religious festival--became, in superstitious times, "The Witches' Night;" crossed the ocean as a season for frolics, and ends with a street-boy's joke.