THERE is, perhaps, no night in the year which the popular imagination has stamped with a more peculiar character than the evening of the 31st of October. The leading idea amongst the inhabitants of the lands of Shakespere, Moore, and Burns respecting this festival is, that it is the time of all others when supernatural influences prevail. It is the night set apart by superstition for a universal walking abroad of spirits, both of the visible and invisible world; one of the special characteristics attributed to the occasion being the faculty conferred on the immaterial principle in humanity to detach itself from its corporeal tenement and wander abroad through the realms of space. Divination is then believed to attain its highest power ; and the gift asserted by Glendower, of calling spirits "from the vasty deep," becomes available to all who choose to make use of the privileges of the time.
There is a remarkable uniformity in the the fire-side custom of this night throughout England, Ireland,Scotland, and Wales. Nuts and apple are everywhere in requisition, and are consumed in immense numbers. From this fact the name of "Nutcrack Night" has often been applied, especially by the people of the north of England. The nuts are not only cracked and eaten, but made the means of vaticination in love affairs, as will be seen by the following which we quote from Burns's poem of "Halloween":—
The auld guidwife's well-hoordit nits,
Are round and round divided,
And monie lads' and lasses' fates
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle coothie, side by side,
And burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa, wi' saucy pride,
And jump out-owre the chimlie
Fu' high that night.
Jean slips in twa wi' tentie ee;
Wha 'twas she wadna tell;
But this is Jock, and this is me,
She says in to hersel:
He bleezed owre her, and she owre him,
As they wad never mair part;
Till, fuff! he started up the lum,
And Jean had e'en a sair heart
To see't that night.
It is the custom in Ireland, when the young women would know if their lovers are faithful, to put three nuts upon the bars of the grate, naming them after the lovers. If a nut cracks or jumps, the lover will prove unfaithful ; if it begins to blaze or burn, he has a regard for the person making the trial ; if the nuts named after the girl and her lover burn together, they will be married.
There is an old custom, still generally observed, of hanging a stick horizontally by a string from the ceiling, and placing a candle on one end and an apple on the other. The stick being made to turn rapidly, the merry-makers in succession leap up and snatch at the apple with their teeth; 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. The disappointment and misadventure occasion, of course, abundance of laughter, and so the hours speed.
But the grand sport of Halloween is the "ducking." A number of apples are placed in a tub of water, and the juveniles - the use of their hands restricted - take turns in diving therefor, catching them with their teeth. Great fun goes on in watching the attempts of the youngster in the pursuit of the swimming fruit, which wriggles from side to side, and evades all attempts to capture it, whilst the disappointed aspirant is obliged to abandon the job in favour of another whose turn has arrived. Some of the competitors deftly suck the apple, if small, into their mouths. Others plunge manfully overhead in pursuit of a particular one, and forcing it to the bottom, seize it with their teeth, and emerge dripping and triumphant with their prize.
Of late years a practice has been introduced, probably by some tender mammas, timorous on the subject of their offspring's catching cold, of dropping a fork from a height into the tub among the apples, and thus turning the sport into a display of marksmanship. This, however, forms but as indifferent substitute for the other plan. In Scotland there exists a custom which generally opens the night's amusement, called "pulling the kail stocks" (cabbage) The young people go out hand-in-hand, blindfolded, into the garden and each pulls the first stalk met with. They then return to the fireside to inspect their prizes. According as the stalk is big or little, straight or crooked, so shall the future wife or husband be of the party by whom it is pulled. The quantity of earth sticking to the root denotes the amount of fortune or dowry and the taste of the pith, or custoc, indicates the temper. Finally, the stalks are placed, one after another, over the door, and the Christian names of the persons who chance thereafter to enter the house are held in the same succession to indicate those of the individuals whom the parties are to marry.
Bow Bells, 1872