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WORDBIRTH, a column by Jack Karasch

As late as the nineteenth century, when superstition was alive and doing well, adults and marriageable adolescents alike fell under the magical spell of HALLOWEEN.

The truth is country folk sat around fires together on Halloween Eve too fearful to be alone or to fall asleep because the potent spirits, believed to be closer to the world of mortals on that evening than on any other, might otherwise overcome them. So they told of their past and recent experiences with Godawful noises and spooks and the like, freely embellishing their tales to while away the crucial hours of the evening.

They believed that these spirits could predict the future. The results of their tests for such predictions were taken with dead seriousness. Chief matters of concern were opportunities for wealth, future spouses, those soon to depart the world, and good fortune in general.

In Wales, warmly clad peasants peered through the keyholes of church doors to get a glimpse of apparitions signifying those soon to die.

The Scots put stones in a fire - one for each family member - and marked a circle around it. After the fire had burned out, the ashes were raked over the stones. If any stones had moved, or footprints were found nearby, the person that stone represented would die within the year.

Gastronomically, the Irish tempted fate in the form of a dish called collcannon or colcannon - mashed potatoes, parsnips and chopped onions. A ring, thimble, doll and coin were all stirred in. The one to find the ring among his portion would be married within the year. The doll foretold the birth of children. The coin of course signified wealth to come, but the thimble meant the finder would never marry.

Marital prospects could also be decided upon by burning nuts in a coal fire. These nuts might be placed near the flames, one for the diviner and the other two for admirers. If the nut burned quietly, the man signified by it would prove a true love. It the nuts separated, however, no lasting happiness could be found with either beau.

Another such method involved a young woman throwing a ball of blue yarn out a window at dark. Holding one end, she then wound the ball over from left to right (called widdershins). The charm worked if the yarn caught hold and resisted returning. "Who holds," the girl would then call.. The name of her sweetheart would be called out to her by the wind.

Young people were known to go blindfolded, in pairs, into a field where they pulled up cabbages. The size and shape of the vegetable were believed to indicate the appearance of a future husband or wife!

Another variation involved a young woman going into her room at midnight on October 31st. and seating herself at a mirror. Nine slices of apple would be cut and eight of them eaten from the point of a knife. If the belle next looked over her shoulder into the mirror she would see the face of her future lover, who would ask for the last slice.

Then as now "tricks" were a big part of the holiday. Groups of merrymakers roamed at night, fixed with masks and often dressed like the opposite sex. Popular pranks included stealing gates, doors and blocking chimneys so smoke would flood the dwelling instead of escaping freely.

In America, well into the 1800s, apple snapping was a popular sport. An apple was suspended from one end of a twirling stick. A lighted candle on the other end of the stick provided the challenge while adults tried to bite the swinging apple without getting burnt.

Jack-o-lanterns, of Irish origin, have of course long been part of the tradition. But the first ones weren't made from pumpkins. The Irish hollowed out, then carved horrible faces upon oversized turnips, potatoes or rutabagas, finally illuminating them with candles.

Get in touch with Jack Karasch at jackarasch@juno.com The next word is: Witch
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