Samhain: Gatherings and Games 1.1

Over the years, Halloween night became an evening to entertain children while adults reflected on the year prior and made plans for the year to come. These parties served as small family reunions, but also played a role in matchmaking, giving the eligible men and women of the community a chance to socialize. Apples, nuts, and kale all figured significantly into Halloween/Samhain tradition, with the apples and nuts often given as gifts to children. This happened in part because kale came to maturity latest in the fall, and the winter stores of apples and nuts opened up around Samhain. A common nickname for Halloween was Nutcrack Night, in part because on that night people began eating the nuts collected earlier in the season.

Attendees played several games throughout the evening. The more popularly remembered games and superstitions involved apples. The United States and the United Kingdom had apple bobbing (also called apple ducking) as a common Hallowe’en game, where children attempted to remove apples from a tub of water with only their teeth. In the United Kingdom, a hostess might toss a silver coin to the bottom of the tub. The first to catch it hands-free kept the prize and was thought to be the first to marry. In colonial America, the first young woman
to snag an apple won the title of the first to marry.

Another game played throughout the United Kingdom called Snap Apple dated back to the original Druids. In its initial form, the host tied an apple to one end of a rope, threw it across a barn rafter, and then tied a lit candle to the other end. Players had to catch the apple in his or her teeth without getting burned by the candle. This game gave way to a less dangerous form, still called Snap Apple (or in the United States sometimes “tethered apple”) where the players tied apples to strings, suspended them from the ceiling (usually by tying the string around a rafter), and then swung them at one another tether-ball style while attempting to catch an apple with only the teeth. Those who won, according to divination, would have successful marriages within the year.

In addition to these games, apple peels and seeds had their own divination traditions. A person seeking information on a future spouse would peel an apple in a continuous spiral and throw it over his or her shoulder. The peel formed the first letter of the true love’s first name. In one variation, the peel staying whole meant that the querent faced marriage by the end of the year, while the peel breaking meant the querent faced another year unwed. Women could take two seeds from the apple and place them on the cheek or eyelids after naming each
after two opposite states of fortune—for example, wealth or poverty, travel or home, or marriage or spinsterhood. The first to fall off was the answer to the question. Cutting an apple in half, crossways, so that the centre formed a star, might also serve as a divination tool. If two seeds appeared, the apple predicted an early marriage; three meant wealth or inheritance; four meant to travel; five meant good health or a sea voyage; six meant wisdom or fame; and seven meant fame or a wish granted. Three guests might also hang apples on a string and
stand in front of the fire; the first to have their apple fall would marry first, the last might never marry.