It’s no secret that I love Halloween. My college dorm room had pumpkin and bat garlands up year round (Let’s not even start with the number of Smashing Pumpkins posters, okay?) and even now I have a black cat die cut and pumpkin candy pail from the 1960s on permanent display. I love bad horror movies even when it isn’t October but I still love autumn and feeling the Halloween spirit inhabit everyone else for a little while. I don’t have too many plans this year save for a Twin Peaks-themed dance party in Brooklyn. (Last year it was a hoot.) I usually try to DIY as much of my own costume as I can but this year I’ve been dragging my feet a little. Mostly because I haven’t had an amazing costume idea yet but there’s still time to make and create.
For inspiration I’ve been reading a few vintage 1920s Halloween booklets and learning a bit about the beginnings of Halloween. While doing this, I kept noticing lots of references to apples. Apples? When was the last time you got a Halloween card with a big smiling apple on it? Me neither. I bobbed for apples once as a kid but only because that was the only time I ever even had the opportunity to apple bob. I decided to find out why blindfolded children were always biting at apples on strings on vintage Halloween cards.
Hallowe’en or All Hallow’s Evening is believed to have originated with the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. The festival began on October 31 at sunset, half way between autumn and winter, and celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of that part of the year where the spirit world was nearest to our own. They believed that the barrier between the world of the living and the dead was weakened during this time and the souls of the dead could come visit them and help foretell their lives for the coming year. Feasts were had, bonfires were lit and costumes were donned. As Pagans associated the shape of the pentagram with fertility and the inside of an apple yields a five-pointed star, apples were seen as a promise of rebirth after a long winter and used in divination rituals. Offerings to the spirit world included burying apples to feed dead souls during their journey from this world to the next. You could also cleanse your soul by cutting an apple in half, “filling” the halves with your bad habits and diseases, putting the halves together and burying it in the ground. Supposedly, as it rotted, so to would your misgivings.
The apple has long been a symbol of fertility, also associated with the Roman goddess Pomona, and the game of apple bobbing or ducking comes from this. The star-shaped orientation of the apple pips or seeds has lead to its use in more modern fortune telling games. Suspending apples from strings or floating them in a barrel and allowing blindfolded guests to bite them was supposed to determine your future mate or who was first to be wedded. Another old Hallowe’en tradition, “apple peeling”, involves a young woman paring an entire apple, yielding one long peel which she then throws over her left shoulder. Whatever shape it lands in is the first initial of her future husband. If you peeled an apple at midnight on October 31 while gazing into a mirror, the image of your future husband would appear. Sometimes it wasn’t exactly what you had hoped for.
I’m not sure exactly why we stepped away from apple symbolism but it likely has to do with the shift from Halloween parties to trick or treating. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Halloween parties and dances started as a way to keep kids from getting into mischief and committing acts of vandalism. The city of Anoka, Minnesota claims to be “The Halloween Capital of the World” because it hosted the first organized Halloween celebration in 1920 which manged to keep pranksters from tipping over outhouses and opening livestock gates. (It took me all of another two seconds to find another city in Kansas that was also boasting to have created the first “Halloween Frolic” in 1914, so I’m hesitant to take the capital claim with any certainty.) It wasn’t until the 1930s that the holiday shifted its focus almost entirely over to children and the trick or treating that we now associate with the holiday.
I’ll leave you with a few more vintage Halloween cards and images and in my next post I will share some 1920s Halloween party decorations and games.