Ghostly games and lore from yesteryear
Halloween is an ancient holiday that never gets old. In fact, it only seems to get bigger! Over the last 10 – 20 years, Halloween decorations have grown more elaborate and now, driving around at night, there are so many spooky lawn displays lit up like… well, Christmas trees. Except instead of Santa it’s Satan, ha — or Jason or Freddie or other monster/demon/ghost/etc of choice. All the fun of the Holidays, with no pressure to buy gifts or spend time with family.
Through generations, Halloween has been an all-ages excuse to play, to pretend, to take on our worst fears and even laugh at them. Our traditions have certainly changed over the years, though, as we discovered in a recent deep dive at newspapers.com, a huge database of archived news back from the days when no less than a dozen daily papers were printed in Philadelphia.
Fire and choking hazards aside, these Halloween party ideas from 100+ years ago remain charming reminders of the enduring spirit of the season. Boo! 👻
Reprinted from Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger, 31, 1914, October 31, 1914
Feast days and fast days, holidays and festivals come and go, but Halloween is unique. It is vested with the charm of all that there is of the mystical, the strange and the weird and the supernatural. Evil spirits hold high carnival, witches ride the air, goblins and hobgoblins, fairies and elves appear boldly, and the souls of the dead come forth from their graves and roam the earth.
Even its origin is mysterious, pagan and Christian with a dash of the mythological thrown in, perhaps. Long ago a feast was held in honor of Pomona, goddess of the harvest. In England the Druids held a harvest celebration at this time of year and built great bonfires in high places in honor of the sun that ripened their grain. In the Catholic calendar the Eve of All Saints coincided with the pagan festival and became involved in the fantastic rites of the earlier celebration,
It is a night when it is not safe to be out in the dark and alone, a night when any man or maiden has the right and the might to invoke the spirit of the future spouse by strange spells and incantations. Faith in magic is all that is needed. Halloween is a time of rejoicing and festivity, and many delightful parties are given to celebrate it fittingly.
The problem of entertaining the guests harasses many a hostess, and for her assistance the following time-honored games are recorded:
First in the list comes snapdragon. This game is a great favorite with the younger folks, and even the elders will enjoy it. About half a pint of brandy should be put into a dish and a match applied to it. The moment it catches fire the light in the room should be put out, so that the sole Illumination comes from the blazing brandy.
Handfuls of candied fruits, raisins, sugared almonds are then flung in, and the guests must try to snatch them out of the flames. This causes great excitement and much laughter, and is sure to make the party a success. The girl or man who manages to obtain the highest amount of fruit, etc., from the flames will meet her, or his, future mate within a year!
The Shadow Game 🕯
This is a splendid game for Halloween. A sheet or tablecloth should be stretched across the centre of the room and a lamp placed behind it on a table. The lights in the room are then put out, and опе player sits at the side between the lamp and the sheet. The other players must then pass in turn behind the one sitting on the stool, their shadows being thrown upon the sheet. They make all sorts of contortions and grimaces, wear false noses and beards, etc., and the man on the stool must try to guess their identity. This is a rather difficult proposition, as the shadows seem strangely distorted and twisted.
Three Dishes 🍽️🍽️🍽️
This game will cause great interest among your guests: take three dishes, fill one with clear water, the second with water into which some black ink has been poured, and leave the third dish empty. Blindfolded guests are led to the table where the dishes are laid, and instructed to dip his (or her) finger into one of the dishes. If they find the empty one, then they are fated to be a bachelor (or old maid). If they dip into the inky water, they will marry a widow or widower. If they find the dish of clear water, their future partner for life will be young and attractive.
A very amusing game is played with mashed potatoes. Into the midst of the mashed potatoes a dime, a ring and a thimble should be placed. The potatoes are then eaten by the guests, and great is the excitement as to who will get the articles buried in the mashed potatoes. The one who gets the ring will soon be married. The one who gets the thimble will live alone all his or her life. The discovery of the dime betokens the reception of a legacy or the gaining of riches.
Apple-Paring Test 🍎
A most popular game is played with apple skins. The apple should be pared, with care being taken to do so in one long, unbroken piece. The paring should then be flung over the left shoulder and allowed to drop to the floor. The letter thus formed will show the initial of the thrower’s future husband or wife.
Mirror, Mirror 🪞
Another delightful game is played with a mirror. The moon should be shining brightly, and the guest must walk several paces backward in the moonlight while gazing into a looking-glass held in one hand. Repeat the following verse to conjure the face of the guest’s future partner for life, which will appear in the glass: “Round and round, O stars so fair! / Ye travel and search out everywhere; / I pray you, sweet stars, now show to me / This night who my future mate will be!”
The Fun of Forfeits 🧑⚖️
No Halloween party is complete without the forfeit toll. When a player is fined for the breach of some rule or for some mistake in a game, or for being defeated in some test, he must at once surrender a piece of his private property, such as a stud, or, in the case of a girl, a bracelet or brooch or something of the sort.
A ready-witted person is then chosen to play the part of the Justice. There is also a collector, who holds out the article forfeited, crying “Who is the owner of this pretty thing?” The owner then comes forward, kneels down at the feet of Justice and to told what he must do to redeem the goods. The penalties are varied and amusing:
“Leave the room with two legs and come back with six.” (The way to do this is to go out of the room and return carrying a chair);
“Place one hand where the other cannot get at it.” (The way to do this is to grasp the elbow).
The quick-witted Justice will invent many amusing penalties, and the game of forfeits will proceed in a very lively manner.
Fortune Telling on Halloween 👳
One of the party should dress up as a witch or gipsy and tell the fortunes of the rest of the company. Another method is to write the fortunes on small pieces of white paper, using milk instead of ink, and when dry, place the slips In empty walnut shells. The shells can then be sealed up, all placed in a large receptacle, and each guest now selects one.
On opening the walnut shells, the paper should be taken out and heated a little, when the milk will turn slightly brown and the writing be clearly revealed. Great surprise will be caused at thus seeing the fortunes literally grow into view.
A Rhyme for All Halloween 👿
Soon is the nicht o’ Hallowe’en,
When a’ the wichtie micht be seen;
Some o’ them black, some o’ them green.
Some of them like a turkey bean.
Halloween is a night, first and last and all the time, when grown-up people can cast aside the affairs of state, the pomp of circumstance, and be what they would most like to be in all the world — merry-hearted children. And if we no longer really and truly believe in the supernatural, there is a remembrance of the belief to serve the purpose and a wish that is almost a faith in its power.
In a word, Halloween is romance, the Never-Never Land that we are all seeking, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes with the dusty highway of the commonplace stretching ahead of us interminably, and blinding our eyes.
🎃🦇🧟 HAPPY HALLOWEEN! 🧟🦇🎃
We hope you have enjoyed this look back into our past. Read more great local history in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger – and other big and small vintage newspapers around the country – at newspapers.com (which you can browse with a 7-day free trial).
Please add your questions and memories below in the “COMMENTS”, and let us know what other holidays, traditions, or cultural icons we should explore through old-time media.