Halloween in the Archives

31 October 2018

Cultural Studies | History

It's a common misconception that Halloween and its sweet-fuelled, trick-or-treat festivities has its origins in America. But these traditions are also deeply rooted in Irish culture, as a 19th-century issue of The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper illustrates.

Halloween, or the festival of Samhain, has been celebrated for more than a thousand years in Ireland. It was believed that the mortal world had open channels to other worlds on this night, and traditions not only involved warding off evil spirits but also divining the future. Many stayed home to practise rituals and games such as melting of the lead, burning of the nuts and snap apple. Some of these lesser known activities are illustrated in the 1886 edition of The Queen.

 

Melting of the Lead

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A group of people intently watch a woman pour molten lead through a key into a bowl of cold water. Like reading tea leaves, the resulting surrealistic forms were then interpreted by the group.

 

Burning the Nuts

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This activity attracts a larger group of onlookers; two nuts have been christened with the names of a prospective couple and then thrown into the fire. If the nuts burn away in silence, the couple can look forward to a quiet, happy future together. But if the nuts crackle or pop, trouble is in store.

 

Seeking his Fortune

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The blindfolded man is about to choose one of the four plates on the table, and not all contain a positive outcome. They are filled with one of the following: a ring, denoting marriage; salt, signifying prosperity; water a long journey (or migration), and clay…an early grave.

 

Ivy Leaves and Yarragh

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The woman carries a basket full of ivy leaves, which will be used to prepare an alternative cup of fortune telling tea. A perfect ivy leaf is placed into a cup of water and left overnight. If the leaf remains perfect and hasn’t developed any spots by the morning, then the person can look forward to 12 months of good health until next Halloween.

 

Snap Apple

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Health & Safety has moved on since this game was played. A cross is suspended from the ceiling. Two opposite arms of the cross have been fitted with candles, the other two with apples. The candles are lit, the cross is spun, and the player must try to take a bite out of one of the apples without getting burnt. More of a trick than a treat, some would say…

Happily, some of the less hazardous and sinister Halloween rituals are more familiar to us today, such as this game of apple bobbing:

Image © Mary Evans Picture Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

Happy Halloween from Adam Matthew!

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About the Author

Sophie Foan

Sophie Foan

I joined the editorial team at Adam Matthew in August 2018. My interests include contemporary art and design history. I'm currently working with archives and the academic community to develop new projects.

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