- Nov 26, 2016
- central NC
Despite their reputation for being quite straight-laced, our Victorian friends celebrated Halloween with great enthusiasm—and often with outright abandon. Victorian Halloween parties were filled with fun, games and spooky rituals. Many of these games had origins in pagan religion or medieval superstition. Most were merely a means of making merry with friends. Either way, Halloween parties in the 19th century were an occasion for indulging in wild, mischievous and often risky games. Victorian merrymaking was indeed sometimes risky business!
"Snap-Apple Night" by Daniel Maclise, 1833.
"Snap-Apple Night" by Daniel Maclise, 1833.
Indoor party games were quite popular with our Victorian friends. Many of their games were a means of predicting the future, especially in relation to discovering the sort of gentleman whom one would eventually marry. In fact, the emphasis on matchmaking at these parties frequently overshadowed the more sinister associations of the holiday, such as witchcraft and communing with the dead.
In her 1893 book entitled How to Amuse Yourself and Others, author Linda Beard lists some of the most common Victorian party games (popular both in England and America). The first involves melting lead in order to determine the occupation of one’s future husband. Beard describes the game as follows:
“Each girl, in turn, holds a door-key in one hand, while with the other hand she pours the melted lead, from an iron spoon or ladle, through the handle of the key into a pan of cold water. In the fanciful shapes the lead assumes can be traced resemblances to all sorts of things. Sometimes it is a sword or gun, which indicates that a soldier will win the fair prize; again, traces of a ship may be seen: then the favored one is to be a sailor; a plough suggests a farmer; a book, a professor, or perhaps a minister; and when the lead forms only drops, it seems to mean that the gentle inquirer will not marry, or if she does, her husband will be of no profession.”
Another game called “Three Luggies” derives from a game mentioned in Robert Burns’ 1785 poem Halloween. It reads in part:
"In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
The luggies three are ranged;
An’ ev’ry time great care is ta’en
To see them duly changed."
The game of "Three Luggies" required three bowls – one filled with clear water, one with milky water, and the last one empty. The three bowls were placed on the hearthstone and the young lady who wished to play was blindfolded and led up to them. As Beard describes:
“She is then told to put her left hand into one of the bowls. If she dips her fingers in the clear water, she will marry a bachelor; if in the milky water, a widower; and if into the empty bowl, it is a sure sign that she will live in single blessedness all her days. This ceremony must be gone through with three times, and the hand be dipped twice in the same bowl, in order to make the prediction of any value.”
There is a version of this game for gentlemen as well. It is nearly identical, except that, according to the 1832 Book of Days, one of the bowls was filled with “foul water.” If the gentleman dipped his fingers into the clean water, he was destined to marry a maiden. If he dipped his fingers into the foul water, there was a widow in his future. And if he encountered the empty bowl, he was fated to end his days a bachelor.
Another popular game involved roasting nuts in order to test friendship or compatibility. This particular game is mentioned in many books and articles of the era. In it, two nuts are chosen and placed side by side on the grate or on a shovel that is held over the fire. Beard explains:
“If they burn quietly, it is prophetic of a long and happy friendship kept up by both parties; but if in roasting they burst with a loud report and fly apart, they are decidedly uncongenial, and should not seek much intercourse. The movements of the nuts while heating are closely watched, for the tempers of the persons for whom they are named is said to be thus revealed.”
Games with mirrors were also a favorite. The Book of Days describes a particular “spell” which involved eating an apple in front of a mirror. If the spirits were amenable, the young lady would be able to see the reflection of the gentleman she would one day marry “peeping over her shoulder.”
Halloween Greeting Card depicting the Magic Mirror game, circa 1904.
Beard mentions another game in which a mirror was used to discern how many incidents of good fortune would befall a person in the coming year. In order to do this, Beard explains:
“The conditions are that the person wishing to know how bright her prospects are shall go to an open window or door from which the moon is visible, and, standing with her face in-doors, hold her mirror so that the moon will be reflected in it. The number of moons she sees there betokens the number of times something pleasant will happen to her before the advent of another Halloween.”
It was fairly common in the Victorian era for most of these games to be geared toward young ladies. However, there was plenty of games for young gentlemen too. Aside from bobbing (also called ducking) for apples, there was the rather perilous “Apple and Candle” game. This game involved hanging up a stick horizontally by a string and attaching a lit candle to one end and an apple to the other. The Book of Days explains:
“The stick being made to twirl rapidly, the merry-makers in succession leap up and snatch at the apple with their teeth (no use of the hands being allowed), but it very frequently happens that the candle comes round before they are aware, and scorches them in the face, or anoints them with grease.”
Ducking for Apples on Halloween. The Book of Days, 1832.
“The dance was not prolonged, for it was our duty, before the fire was spent, to snatch from the flames the raisins we had put in the dish. This can be done, if one is careful, without as much as scorching the fingers, and I never knew of anyone burning themselves while making the attempt.”
Some Victorian Halloween games were indeed risky. I’ll close with the following 1896 newspaper article as an example:
“Hallowe’en Caused her Death” from The Canterbury Journal, 1896.
Beard, Linda. How to Amuse Yourself and Others. New York: Scribner & Sons, 1893.
Chambers, Robert. Ed. The Book of Days. London: W. R. Chambers, 1832.