Find Love With These 18 Old Halloween Fortune-Telling Tricks

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before trick-or-treat, the sugar lobby, and mass-produced David S. Pumpkins costumes took over Halloween celebrations, fortune-telling games were one of the most popular ways to enjoy our spookiest holiday.

This was especially true in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Halloween is rooted in the festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, in which worshippers believed the gates between our present reality and the netherworld briefly shut down. It was a night for consulting the spirit realm for advice—especially on love and marriage. In fact, Halloween was just as romantic as our modern Valentine’s Day, if not more so.

With Lisa Morton’s exhaustive book The Halloween Encyclopedia as our guide, we’ve cobbled together some of the best romantic divination techniques from the Celtic New Year celebrations. Keep in mind that as far-fetched as some of these fortune-telling games may seem, they were largely viewed as playful parlor games—opportunities for friends to set potential suitors up, or for a bashful lad or lass to spark a courtship. When playing a game, “a clever hostess will send two unsuspecting lovers by different doors;” Martha Orne suggests in Hallowe’en And How to Celebrate It, “they are sure to meet, and not infrequently settle matters then and there.”

Perhaps it's time to bring a few of these back?

1. Acquire a newborn baby. Encourage it to sip from a bowl. Afterward, return the baby. Retain the bowl and fill it with water, then cut all 26 letters of the alphabet from a newspaper or magazine—or write the letters on 26 slips of paper—and place the papers into the bowl. Leave it to sit overnight. The next morning blindfold yourself, dip your hand into the bowl, and pull out the same number of slips as letters that are in your name. Using those slips, you should be able to spell the name of your future spouse. (You can thank the people of Newfoundland for this custom.)

2. Eat an entire salted herring, bones and all, in three bites. Do not drink water. Go to bed. In your dreams, prophetic visions of your future spouse shall appear. (Also possible: indigestion.)

3. Find a blackberry bush. Crawl underneath the branches. In the moonlight, you may find the shadow of your future beloved. (Also possible: blackberries.)

4. Procure two apple seeds. Wet the seeds. Designate one seed for “Love Interest A,” and the second seed for “Love Interest B.” Press the seeds against your forehead or eyelids. Wait. The first apple seed to fall will indicate the least faithful of the two suitors.

Cabbage
Lisa Morton

5. Trespass on your neighbor’s garden. Strap on a blindfold, and began searching for kale. Upon finding the vegetable, attempt to pull the kale from the dirt. The shape of the kale's root shall foretell your future: “A straight stalk foretold a tall straight handsome mate, and dirt clinging to the kale promised money,” Morton writes. (Don’t snicker: This divination was once a popular matchmaking tool in Scotland, and, if you’re of Scottish descent, there’s a chance that you owe your entire existence to a stalk of kale.)

6. Step outside and pluck a hair from your head. (If balding, skip to the next divination.) At nightfall, toss the hair into the wind. The direction the hair flies will indicate the direction from which your future spouse will come. In 1714, the English dramatist John Gay mentioned this custom in this poem:

I pluck this lock of hair from off my head
to tell whence comes the one that I shall wed.
Fly, silken hair, fly all the world around,
Until you reach the spot where my true love is found.

7. Spread a fine layer of cornmeal near your bed. (People with carpet can probably skip this one.) Sleep. In the morning, the name of your future spouse will be scribbled in the powder. (This bit of divination was supposedly practiced by children in the American south.)

8. Grab an egg, prepare a glass of water, and school yourself in oomancy! Crack the egg and carefully drip the whites into the water three times: The goop will contort to form the initials of your future beloved. (But be careful: Morton writes of a young man who was so disturbed by his eggy divination, he “drank heavily and became a beggar who committed suicide by downing laudanum.” The girls of Salem also attempted to read egg whites, and, well, we know how that turned out.)

9. Book a ticket to the Scottish Highlands, specifically to Ross-shire where this trick supposedly originated. Find a field in which the furrows run north to south. Wait for dark. Enter the field from the west, and gently walk over 11 furrows. Stop at the 12th, wait, and listen for your fortune: If you hear sobbing, you may die early; if you hear music, your future will be joyful. (And if you hear a man or woman grumbling about getting off their lawn, your future likely holds a trespassing charge.)

10. Find a snail. Go to the hearth, scoop up ashes, and scatter them across a plate. (Hearthless? Use flour!) Place the snail on the plate and go to sleep. In the morning, check the snail’s slime trail: It will have spelled the initials of your true love.

Limekiln
Lisa Morton

11. Locate the nearest lime-kiln. Then locate the nearest arts and crafts store and buy blue yarn. Throw the ball of yarn into the kiln while grasping the opposite end. Reel in the yarn. When you feel a tug from the other end, ask for the name of your future beloved, and a disembodied voice will belch his or her name. (This tradition originates in lower Scotland, where it was believed that mythical household goblins called “Brownies” lived in the kilns—and, well, everywhere else.)

12. Buy a knife and find a field of leeks. At night, walk backwards through the field, and stab one of the leeks with the knife. Hide, then watch. According to Celtic lore, your future spouse will walk through the field, pick up the knife, and chuck it to the middle of the garden.

13. Visit a farm and pull up a stalk of oats. If the stalk is missing the tiny seeds at the top—what the Scots called the pickle—then you’ll lose your virginity before marriage. (For people who have already sowed their oats, pulling up a stalk of oats is probably unnecessary.) The Scottish poet Robert Burns refers to this custom, alluding to a woman’s virginity as the “tap-pickle":

But her tap-pickle maist [nearly] was lost,
What kiutlin [fondling] in the ‘fause-house’
Wi’ him that night.

14. Attain a willow branch or wand. While holding it in the left or right hand, run around your house three times. Meanwhile, whisper, “He that is to be my goodman, come to grip the end of it.” During the third lap, the fetch—that is, the living spirit—of your future spouse will appear and grab it. (Willow is a interesting choice of wand, since it used to be a symbol of curmudgeonry. In the Scottish Highlands, placing a peeled willow wand on your door was a sign that you wished nobody to enter your house.)

Backwards
Lisa Morton

15. At midnight, scoop up a heaping spoonful of salt and insert it into your mouth. Do not swallow. Then light a candle, grab a mirror, and, while holding both candle and mirror in your hands, begin walking backward into the cellar. Watch the mirror. As you reach the bottom, you’ll see the face of your future spouse staring back at you. (According to the aptly titled Book of Entertainments and Frolics for All Occasions, “This is most easily accomplished if there be a tacit agreement that some cavalier shall be in waiting for the inquiring maid.”)

16. Place two nuts on a fire and recite these words: If you hate me spit and fly; if you love me burn away. If the nuts roll apart, you may separate soon from your spouse. If both burn, your relationship is secure. A similar divination involves placing two peas on a red-hot shovel.

17. It’s time to break out the Luggie Bowls! Place three bowls side by side: Fill the first with clear water, the second with dirty water, and the third with no water at all. Blindfold yourself and ask a friend to rearrange the bowls. Dunk your left forefinger into one of the bowls. If you choose the clear bowl, you’ll enjoy a happy marriage. The dirty water, on the other hand, indicates an unhappy marriage, and the empty bowl means no marriage at all. Robert Burns describes Luggie Bowls in a poem:

In order, on the clean hearth-stane
The luggies three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta’en
To see them duly changed:
Auld uncle John, wah wedlock’s joys
Sin Mar’s year did desire,
Because he gat the toom-dish [empty] thrice
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

18. Pour half a pint of high-proof brandy in a dish. Ignite it. Throw a handful of raisins, nuts, candied figs, and other tiny fruits into the blaze. Then gather a group of friends and attempt to remove as many items as possible, trying your best to toss them into your mouth without getting burnt. Whoever retrieves the most fruits and nuts is destined to meet their true love in one year. (In Britain, this game, known as Snap-Dragon, was mostly a Christmas Eve parlor game—Charles Dickens wrote about it in The Pickwick Papers—but, in the United States, it supposedly became a Halloween pastime.)

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

The Hottest Star Wars Toy for Christmas in 1977 Was an Empty Box

iStock/Sadeugra
iStock/Sadeugra

It's hard to imagine a child's face lighting up at the sight of an empty cardboard box staring back at them from under the Christmas tree. But in 1977, young Jedis-in-training were so hungry for anything Star Wars-related that even an I.O.U. was something to get excited about.

When George Lucas's intergalactic gamble first hit screens in May 1977, no one knew quite what to expect—especially the film's toy-making partner, Kenner. Instead of flooding the market with action figures and dolls for a movie that could very well end up being a flop, the company decided not to manufacture any toys right away. Unfortunately, there wasn't just a demand for Star Wars toys that year; there was an outright fever that took the company completely by surprise. And with Christmas just a few short months away, the ill-prepared Kenner needed to act—fast.

Realizing it would be impossible to get a full line of Star Wars toys manufactured in time to meet the needs of the holiday season, a Kenner executive named Bernard Loomis knew he had to improvise. Instead of simply releasing a proper toyline in 1978 and missing out on the Christmas rush, Loomis came up with what is now known as the "Early Bird Certificate Package" (or more colloquially as the "Empty Box Campaign") to satisfy this sudden, rabid fan base.

Basically, parents would go to their local toy store and pay $7.99 for a thin cardboard package, about the size of a manila envelope, with painted renderings of the proposed 12-figure Star Wars toyline that Kenner was promising to release in the months ahead. The cardboard kit could be turned into a display diorama for all the figures, which—at that point—only existed in theory. And since the word "diorama" isn't quite enough to satisfy a kid on Christmas morning, the kit also contained the all-important mail-in certificate promising the recipient would get the company's first four figures—Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca—delivered right to their homes between February and June 1978.

Kenner limited the supply of this glorified pre-order campaign to 500,000 kits, none of which were to be sold after December 31, 1977 in order to really manipulate the holiday market.

In an attempt to soften the blow of what was essentially nothing but a bunch of cardboard under the tree, Kenner sweetened the pot by including some stickers and a Star Wars Fan Club membership card. After months of waiting, kids everywhere would come home from school and be greeted by their delayed Christmas gift: four figures, along with foot pegs to fit them into their display stand. Eventually the entire first line of Star Wars toys came out in 1978 and could be purchased in stores, whether you mailed in a certificate or not.

From 1978 to 1985, Kenner never again doubted the power of the Star Wars toy line. In that time, the company released a robust roster of more than 100 different action figures based on the film series, scraping the bottom of the barrel of Lucas lore along the way with obscurities like Dengar and General Madine. The company went from having no toys on the shelf in 1977 to having every side character, prop, and vehicle recreated in plastic in just a few years.

Nowadays, intact Early Bird Kits go for big money on the collector's market, especially if they still include the original certificate kids were supposed to mail back (prices in the $4000 to $8000 range are pretty standard). But the biggest winner of this whole stunt, as usual, was George Lucas.

When signing on to direct Star Wars at 20th Century Fox, Lucas agreed to work for just $150,000, as opposed to the $500,000 he was set to earn. In exchange for the pay cut, the director asked for two things: The rights to any sequels to the movie and the rights to all the merchandise, including the toys. Believing Star Wars to be just another science fiction movie, Fox happily agreed to the reduced salary. That empty box under countless Christmas trees was the start of what would become Lucas's $20 billion merchandising empire.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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