On Halloween Traditions

Today is, of course, Halloween (or properly Hallowe’en), the perfect excuse to have a night in with a spooky DVD, demand sweets with menaces or just get smashed while dressed as the zombie you’ll undoubtedly feel like in the morning. I used to quite like (‘scuse split infinitive) Halloween at home in North-East England because, aside from New Year, it’s the time when all the old traditions and folklore come out to play.

At home we’d always have a go at apple-bobbing, or dooking, as it’s known in the Northumbrian dialect. The principle’s the same: you half drown yourself, shoving your head in a bucket of water until you manage the seemingly impossible and pick up an apple by your teeth – though remember, grabbing the stalk is cheating! Apparently my Grandmother cheated in a different way, but taking her false teeth out and plunging them into the water to catch an apple manually! As a child, I would eagerly go dooking every year, but only when I’d actually caught the elusive apple would I remember that I didn’t really like fruit, but since my teethmarks were already in the apple, I’d have to eat it. The same was always true for toffee apples; only once I’d eaten all the sugary goodness off the outside would I realise I’d have to eat the remaining vitamins. A friend told me that in her house, apple dooking combined badly with another tradition of getting a penny out of a pile of flour: flour + apple water = cement-like material on your face.


Whereas toffee onions is an evil even witches tut at.

I’m always interested by the less common or regional variations of traditions, and I’ve conducted several unscientific studies of the pub and my facebook friends to see what people do differently. Like carving pumpkins. According to Wikipedia (I know, I’m all about the science here), the tradition originated in Britain and Ireland where carved turnips and beets were used as lanterns for guisers, and to scare off evil spirits from houses. This spread to America where they used pumpkins as part of Halloween from about the 1860s. When little, I usually carved a turnip – harder to do and more locally available than a pumpkin, and then my Dad could use the leftovers for soup and things the following week. There is definitely an unsettling fruit and veg pattern developing here.

Similarly, instead of trick-or-treating, I’d go Guising, a tradition which a quick poll of the pub and facebook seems local to Northumberland and parts of Scotland. The name comes from the idea of disguising yourself so that the evil spirits don’t recognise you, along with the people whose houses you’re knocking at. There doesn’t seem to be the element of threat you get with trick-or-treating though; rather, kids would sing a song or say a poem to the householders in order to earn their sweet or tuppence (in the olden days). One Scottish chant was “the sky is blue, the grass is green, may we have our Halloween”, while my Mam invented her own one, aged 7:

“We are the Guisers on Halloween night, we don’t mean to scare you or give you a fright.

We are the Guisers with our beady eye-ses and our old school tie-ses…”

Another seemingly less common tradition, again based on a straw poll of amigos, is the game of Snapdragons. I first heard of this in a particularly sinister episode of Poirot set at Halloween and concerning a murder at a children’s party, and I’d quite like to have a go at it. The game that is, not the murder. As far as I know, you just douse a bowl of raisins in brandy, set it alight and try to pick them out and eat them. A friend reckons it’s more of a Christmas game, and it really is suited to both occasions. Sounds like it has the potential to be a student favourite, as it combines alcohol with possibly painful behaviour (yolo!), although again it involves fruit consumption. (Another good one is tying an apple and a lighted candle to a ruler, suspended from the ceiling and trying to bite the apple while the ruler spins. Don’t try this at home, kids!)


“What do you mean, I shouldn’t have microwaved the brandy first?”

Halloween isn’t just the night for games and scaring away spirits, but also the traditional time for fortune telling. Methods for divining your future spouse are the most traditional, and again some involve fruit. One method was for an unmarried person to peel an apple in one go, and throw the string of skin over her left shoulder. The letter the skin formed was the initial of their future beloved. I tried that, but as of yet I haven’t met anyone whose name starts with a spiral. Another thing was for a woman to brush her hair three times while looking in the mirror. Her future husband would then appear in the glass, looking over her shoulder (and then presumably she’d scream and call the cops about the intruder).

There are many other fascinating traditions, including naming nuts by the fire to see which of your friends you’d marry, and I urge you to have a look on your generic search-engines because I can’t list them all here, much as I’d like to in this short space.

I think it’s fantastic that some of these traditions are still going on in these days of science and rationality, either purely as entertainment or to create a sense of connection with the more superstitious past. However, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the whole holiday’s part of an elaborate plot by my parents to get me to eat more fruit and veg. Maybe I should try the apple-peeling fortune telling, and hope the peel lands in the letters “K”, “F” and “C”?

One thought on “On Halloween Traditions

  1. Pingback: On New Year’s Traditions | Scranshums

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