Halloween has become a “spooky” holiday devoted mostly to fun for children. But once upon a time, Halloween was the prime time for love rituals and the most elaborate, meaningful one for our Victorian friends was the dumb supper.
“Dumb,” in this case, is a synonym for mute or silent, as the most essential rule was that a dumb supper be hosted by young women in complete silence. The setting was typically an isolated place like an abandoned house, and everything was prepared backwards. The table was set as backwards as possible with the chairs turned backwards and dessert served first. If anyone spoke a word, the spell was broken. When everything was prepared exactly right, the spirits of the husbands-to-be would walk through the door, or maybe even arrive in person at midnight. Whether apparition or not, whoever sat next to a young lady was sure to be her future husband.
Victorian newspapers, especially in the South, outlined the process of conducting a dumb supper. For many young women, these suppers were just a supernatural party game, but for some they held a spookier element. Some dumb suppers supposedly forecast spinsterhood and even death. If a coffin appeared at midnight, that meant that one of the young women wouldn’t marry at all and would likely die soon. Of course, likely during actual dumb suppers, the only real danger posed was interruption by neighborhood pranksters. Some participants’ mothers actually encouraged boys to burst in.
But the dumb supper, along with other Halloween love rituals, did address a deeply felt need. In a time when a young woman’s future depended on whom she married, discovering the man’s identity in advance was powerfully motivating. Thus, the appeal of the dumb supper was widespread and long-lasting.
Dumb suppers were prevalent in the American south until the 1950s when they largely disappeared. Women had gained more control over their destinies so perhaps this made marriage rituals less enticing. However, dumb suppers are still observed as a soulful ceremony for Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead and the start of winter and some still take place in locales like Salem, Massachusetts. There the age-old ritual of the dumb supper memorializes and honors the beloved dead and participants eat meals, often containing the favorite foods of the departed, backwards, starting with dessert and ending with dinner rolls. And of course, the meals are conducted in unbroken silence.