Halloween began centuries ago in Ireland as Samhain. October 31st was the last day of the Celtic year, and people believed it was a time when all sorts of ghouls could visit from the spirit world. Jack o’lanterns are the descendants of turnips carved with gruesome faces to frighten off evil spirits. Trick or treating began as a fear of those visiting spirits and the hope that some nice treats would convince them not to play any cruel tricks. And because it was the last night of the year, people were also very curious about what the new year would hold for them.
Samhain became a night for fortune telling. It was especially popular with younger people, and it is no surprise that the main questions asked were about love and marriage. No doubt people also worried about the coming year’s crops, their health and many other things, but let’s face, asking about love is a lot more fun. It’s hard to imagine people getting all that giddy about how their herd of cows will fare, but anyone who has been a teenager can remember the excitement of wondering if someone special was interested in you.
Old Ireland had many different ways of telling fortunes. They are dying out today, as more modern Halloween celebrations gain popularity. Children all over Ireland will go out trick or treating in costumes on October 31st, and teens will gather around bonfires and set of (technically illegal) fireworks. They’ll send selfies to each other and make videos, but their grandparents might still remember the excitement of older Irish Halloween traditions.
Irish Fortune Telling Traditions
One tradition is still around, although it has been watered down due to concerns about safety and liability. Barmbrack is a round fruit bread that people traditionally made for Samhain. They would bake tokens into it, and whatever was in your slice represented something that would happen to you in the new year. A ring represented engagement or marriage, and a coin foretold prosperity. Not all the tokens were happy ones. A thimble said you would remain single, and a bit of rag indicated you would be poor in the new year.
Apples are abundant in autumn, and they were involved in a few different Samhain fortune telling traditions.
Girls would peel apples or potatoes trying to keep the peel in one piece, then let the long peel drop to the floor. Whatever letter the peel resembled on the floor was the initial of the person she would marry.
Bobbing for apples began as a game to predict who would be the next to marry. Snap apple was another game where two applies and two lit candles were hung from two crossed pieces of wood. People would try to get a bite of one of the apples without burning themselves on the candles, and whoever was the first to succeed was predicted to be the next one to get married.
These Irish Halloween traditions could inspire some amazing and fun ways to propose to the one you’d like to spend the rest of your life beside!