The Quick 10: 10 Halloween Traditions

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Most of us are pretty familiar with carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating, but there are plenty of other Halloween traditions out there. Some of them are from way back when, and some are just from different parts of the world. Either way, maybe you'll find something new to add to your All Hallows Eve traditions.

1. Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack, or "Jack the Smith," is likely the story that gave us the tradition of carving pumpkins. The tale originates in Ireland, where Stingy Jack boozed his way through villages, begging and manipulating and being basically an all-around loser. The Devil heard of Jack's shenanigans and decided to put an end to it, but Jack tricked him a couple of times and eventually won the Devil's assurance that he would never take Jack to Hell. Jack eventually died, but because of his sinful earthly ways, he was denied entrance to Heaven. He tried to get into Hell instead, but of course, the Devil reminded him that this was impossible. Instead, he gave Jack an ember inside of a hollowed-out turnip and made him walk the earth forever, warning people of what could happen to them. Which leads us to another tradition"¦

2. Carving turnips and rutabagas. Here we carve pumpkins, of course, and it's catching on around the world. But before we carved pumpkins, the Irish were carving rutabagas, turnips and mangelwurzels thanks to our friend Stingy Jack. When the Irish came to the U.S., these vegetables weren't nearly as common, and so they adapted the tradition to pumpkins. If you want to try your hand at carving a turnip this year, there are instructions here. It's pretty much like carving a pumpkin, but smaller and less gooey.

postcard3. If you're dying to know who you're going to marry someday, here's an update on the apple stem twist we used to do as kids (or was that just me?). Unmarried women used to sit in a dark room on Halloween night and look into a mirror. Eventually, their husband's face would appear in it. If a skull appeared instead, the woman would surely die before she could ever get married.
4. Guising is what they call trick-or-treating in parts of Scotland and northern England. Unlike here, though, kids who go guising are expected to earn their treats with a song or a card trick, some jokes or a poem. Guising has only been confined to Halloween in relatively recent times "“ in 1815, one account said that "Gysarts" were allowed to come around every evening from Christmas to "Fasternse'en" (Shrove Tuesday).

5. Dumb Cake. This was an old tradition during Hop-tu-Naa, a Celtic festival you'd have to specifically go to the Isle of Man to celebrate. Kids trick-or-treat and carry turnip lanterns, but they also sing Hop-tu-Naa songs. And in the old days, they used to have their own fortune-telling traditions. On October 31, young women would bake Dumb Cake over the hearth, including some soot from the fire in with the ingredients. When it was ready, the cake was divided up and eaten in utter silence. Then each girl would apparently walk backward to bed and expect to see her husband-to-be in a dream. There was also a tradition of sweeping ash from the fire over the hearth. In the morning, a footprint in the ash that faced in toward the fireplace indicated a birth ahead. A footprint pointing toward the door meant that someone would die.

barmbrack6. Barmbrack is another custom from Ireland. It's a type of bread with raisins in it and can be served year "˜round, but at Halloween, certain objects are baked right into the bread: a pea, a stick, a coin, some cloth, and a ring. Each one carried significance, so if you got the piece with something in it, you would immediately know what your fortune was. The pea means you wouldn't be getting married in the next year and the ring, of course, meant that you would be. The stick meant an unhappy marriage, the cloth meant bad finances ahead, and the coin meant wealth was headed your way.

7. Coelcerth was actually observed on November 1, but that's close enough for my purposes. It was part of a tradition of Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter in Wales. For coelcerth, a family would build a fire and write their names on stones surrounding it. If they woke up in the morning and found that a person's stone was missing, they knew that person would die in the next year. It seems to me that this would be the perfect opportunity to freak out your siblings"¦

8. Allantide is a Cornish (as in Cornwall, England) festival celebrated at the same time as Halloween. One the games commonly played worked like this: a cross, laid flat, was suspended from the ceiling, and a candle would be placed at each end. Then apples were hung from the underside of the cross. The game was for children to try to get the apples with their mouths "“ kind of like bobbing for apples in midair. If they were too slow, the candles dripped hot wax on their faces. Ummm"¦ fun?

9. Soul Cakes. In Britain, and in a similar tradition in Italy, children would go from door to door collecting "soul cakes" from neighbors. Each cake represented a soul, and every time a child ate a cake it was supposed to mean that they had freed someone from Purgatory. As a kid, I would have taken that super literally and would have been concerned about eating someone's soul.

Banana_slug_at_UCSC10. Floured Slugs. OK, one more weird wedding game for you. In 19th-century Ireland, women would sprinkle flour on a plate and then drop a slug on it. As the slug wriggled its way across the plate, it would leave a pattern in the flour that was supposed to show them what their husband was going to look like. I suppose it's kind of like reading tea leaves, but I keep picturing this moment where a women sees the love of her life for the first time from across the room, rushes over to him, takes his face in her hands and passionately cries, "I saw your face in the slug flour!"

Do you have any Halloween traditions? Do they involve baking supplies and gastropods? Do tell. I'd love to pick up a new tradition "“ our only tradition mostly involves watching scary movies for the entire month of October.
I'm out next week, so I'll "see" you guys in November "“ have a fun Halloween!

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October 23, 2009 - 1:06pm
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