A woman sits before a mirror at midnight on October 31. She stares deeply into it, combing her hair and eating an apple. She does this on All Hallow’s Eve in hopes of seeing the face of her true love reflected in the glass. This is just one of the many traditions around Halloween created by women who believed that on the eve of Halloween, practices like pumpkin carving and apple bobbing might bring them love.
In Ruth Edna Kelly’s Book of Halloween (1919), the holiday’s unofficial queen recants the many traditions and rituals celebrated on October 31st that were crafted and honed by women. According to Kelly, these practices often derived from the (kind of archaic, possibly outdated) pursuit of love: Among the many ways women inspired some historic Halloween traditions, these are three that you will be sure to recognize.
In the 19th century, many believed that Halloween was the boundary between realms: Living and dead. The lines between these two planes blurred as the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier to predict the future. Women, specifically, believed that Halloween posed a huge (albeit rather superstitious) matchmaking opportunity. As the story of the woman in the mirror goes, many were convinced that eating an apple in front of a mirror would present you with your one true love if you recited this spell: “Round and round, oh star so fair, you travel and search out everywhere. I pray you sweet stars now show to me this night, who my future husband shall be.” (Cue image of Keanu Reeves.) According to the old folklore, if you saw a skull, you were destined to die before you could marry anyone (an unmarried woman? Oh, the horror!).
Although this tradition largely fizzled out over the years, mirrors are still used on Halloween to symbolize various spooky affairs. Mirror symbolization mostly stems from the Bloody Mary mirror ritual which has transformed and evolved into various different practices over time. For the brave and maybe a little morbidly-unphased, feel free to give this old theory a try:
On October 31, wait until 12pm before make sure the room is pitch black — except for your candle. Place a mirror face-up, leaning on a desk or table with the candle nearby. Start to comb your hair with one hand and hold an apple with the other while recite poem. Then, hope for the best.
Bobbing For Apples
Apple bobbing is a strange holiday activity which we often forget to question (i.e. why oh why do we stick our heads in a bucket to try and pick up an apple with our teeth?). It was originally popularized as a fortune-telling game on Halloween: The apples represented all of a woman's suitors, and the apple she bit into was supposed to represent her future spouse (very Twilight-esque). As the Halloween origin tells it, women would then peel the bobbed apples and throw the peels over their shoulders, believing those shavings would reveal their future partner’s initials.
The symbol of apples on Halloween took a few derivatives over the years, eventually transforming into representations of all fruit, which would be passed out to children door-to-door. Luckily, modern day interpretations of this old tradition swapped out fruit for a more sugary Halloween snack, so kids could rot their teeth every trick-or-treat season. Still, the tradition of bobbing for apples, and even apples as a symbol of candy, derived from a practice founded entirely by women.
In the early 19th Century, women prepared Halloween festivities by hosting events with lavish decorations for All Hallow’s Eve. A main component of the holiday’s ornamentation involved women carving pumpkins, hallowing them out and filling them with nuts and fruits. At the end of the night, women would eat their fruit-filled pumpkins before going to bed. The hope here was that on Halloween she would dream about (you guessed it) her future spouse.
Although pumpkin carving eventually took shape (literally) in the form of creepy faces that would sit on stoops until far past their expiration date, the practice of carving itself was really honed by Celtic women in Ireland who carved turnips to ward off evil spirits. Aside from pumpkin faces, though, this tradition more or less remains in tact.
Now, as we swap out these match-making traditions for serious costume competitions and drinking games, it’s important to remember the origins of All Hallow’s Eve and the women behind traditions that have lasted multiple centuries.