A Nut-Crack Night Party: 1903

nut crack night postcard

A Nut-Crack Night Party

By Bertha Hasbrook

The enterprising Miss Jones laid down a volume of Bobby Burns with energy. “I’m going to give a Hallowe’en party that shall be a real Hallowe’en party,” she announced; and every one knew that she meant it. “Our old friend Bobby has put it into my head. Do you know that there isn’t one party in a thousand, given on the last night of October, that is historically correct? The superstitions of that night have become altered and corrupted as they have passed down for years, until an old-time North-of-England man, if he could rise from his grave, would be shocked at the absurdities perpetrated in the name of Hallowe’en. Who is there nowadays who knows the tradition of the luggies? Who ever dragged a graip in the dark outdoors? Who has eaten a supper of sowans ?”

“Where are you going to get your luggies. your graip, and your sowans?” inquired Miss Jones’s brother. “That’s exactly like you, Van Wyck,” she replied. “You’ll enjoy my party, anyway. It’s going to be so old-fashioned that it will be a novelty.” Thereupon Miss Jones plunged into books.

She studied Hallowe’en and its traditions she had never studied anything before, with the result that she discovered that even the well-known mirror-and-candle game is nowadays played incorrectly. Her guests on that 31st of October—Nut-crack night, as she called it, according to Old England’s custom—felt themselves slipping back into another century, so accurately had she reproduced the atmosphere of that other time.

Upon arriving at the Jones’s home, the guests were not directed to remove their wraps, as they expected to be. Instead, they were conducted to the drawing room, where Miss Jones received them, herself in wraps.

“We are all to go first to the bonfire,” she explained to them. “None of our efforts to peer into the future can avail until the bad spirits who abound tonight have been consumed.”

So when all the guests had arrived, she led the way outdoors to a bit of vacant land beyond the house. There an enormous bonfire was built.

“If you could but see them, you would know that the air about us is filled with evil spirits of every kind,” she explained “Warlocks and witches abound. Hobgoblins lurk in corners. They would destroy our charms if they could; they must be consumed.”

The bonfire roared merrily until the hostess declared that the air was cleared of the pest. “Now our magic may avail,” she announced. ‘

The party returned to the house, removed their wraps, and the charms were put forth.

“It will be as well for us each to knead a cake with the left thumb to start with,” she said. “Done properly, the act brings good fortune. Misfortune follows a mistake, and it’s always best to know the worst at once.”

A small, unbaked cake of stiff dough was furnished to each guest. The rule was read; the cake must be kneaded with the left thumb, while the kneader maintained absolute silence. Those who succeeded in uttering no word or exclamation were to be favored; an utterance was to bring misfortune.

Some bobbing for apples put the company into a jolly mood. This was done in the customary way, the apples floating in a tub.

“There’s no other Hallowe’en tradition as little corrupted as this,” Miss Jones said. “The one mistake made nowadays is that the hands of the players are seldom tied behind their backs—as yours are about to be. We’re in Old England now, remember, and this is a truly old-time Nut-crack night.”

nutcrack night whirling stick

There was much merriment over the whirling stick. Upon one end of this an apple was impaled; upon the other stood a lighted candle. A string was attached near the apple, and the stick suspended from the ceiling, balanced so that it hung horizontally. It was then set whirling and the players, hands still bound behind, were each given a few minutes’ turn to try for a bite out of the apple’s fat cheek. Around and around whirled the stick, so rapidly that the candle flame brushed noses and chins in the sauciest manner. Only one succeeded in biting the apple in the allotted time.

And then, when the early part of the evening was spent and the mysterious hours of night drew nearer, began the peering into the future. The romping died, and tests began— simple at first, increasingly weird as the night grew later.

There were nut experiments in the first place. By one ancient method, once familiar in Ireland, there nuts were placed upon the bars of the grate. These were named for three lovers. If any one of them cracked in the flames, or jumped forth, the one for whom it was named would prove unfaithful. Another trick was to put two nuts into the fire, as close together as possible. These were named for a man and a maid. If he leaped forth from the flames, it was a sign that he would desert her; if she leaped forth, she was to be the unfaithful one. In promise of happy matrimony the two occasionally burned merrily side by side.

The test of the three luggies, known in old-time lore, was next made. The luggies, be it known, were merely dishes, saucers in this case, all three alike. They differed in contents, however. One held clear water, one dark water, the third no water at all.

nutcrack night luggies

One by one the blindfolded guests were led before the luggies, which stood in a row upon the hearth. The player knelt before them, and groped for one; his future hung upon the choice which the Fates directed. Dipping the fingers into the clear water meant that he or she would marry a maiden or a bachelor; the dark, a widow or widower; the empty dish predicted no marriage at all. A shifting of the dishes was made before each choice, so that the Fates alone could guide.

Then the charms of darkness were tried.

It was a winding, black, and “creepy” back staircase up which the maidens were directed to seek the magic mirror. The door at the foot of the stairs clapped shut upon them; unseen stairs lay ahead. In this part of the house stillness prevailed. At the top of the stairs glimmered a light; this came from the chamber in which the magic mirror hung. Here were found a lighted candle, a dish filled with apples, and a comb. You have all tried a similar test; but how many of you have ever practised it accurately, according to the history of traditions? This is the magic mirror rule, correctly given: Stand before the mirror, comb in the right hand, apple in the left. There must be no light but that of a candle. Slowly comb your hair, at the same time eating the apple, and steadily watching the mirror. This is as far as the rule goes; what appears to you, ghostly, pale, peeping over your own shoulder—that remains to be seen.

While some were trying the mirror, others, always alone, were sowing hemp seed, or what Miss Jones was obliged to offer in its place. A handful of seed was given to the curious one, and she was sent forth to what was called “the corn-yard.” Here a sort of rick had been prepared for the occasion; a pitchfork, or graip, was placed in the sower’s hand, and she dragged it as she walked around and around the rick, chanting the magic words. These she had memorized faithfully before tempting the future, for she was warned that any error in the chant might destroy the charm. “Hemp seed, I sow thee; hemp seed, I mow thee; and who shall be my ain true love come after me and pou thee?” At the last words she peeped over her left shoulder—and there the wraithlike figure was expected to be seen, pulling ghostly hemp.

nutcrack night clew

While one tried this charm, another sought to read the future through the medium of a “clew” or ball of blue worsted. Blue is the only color which, in this case will lead the spirits of the future to reveal their secrets. “You are to go through the back door, follow the left path, and stop when you reach the kiln-house,” instructed the hostess.

Standing a few feet from the opening of the kiln-house, the girl cast the clew into it, holding as firmly as she could, in a very shaky hand, the end of the worsted. Then she began to wind a new clew from that end, the old one unwinding as she did so. The promise was that, as she came to the close of her task, she would feel a grasp upon the other end of the worsted. “Who holds?” she must cry—and the answer would be the eagerly sought vision.

nutcrack night cake

The shirt-sleeve test was to include the witching hour of twelve, so Miss Jones insisted that it be deferred until the supper of “sowans, bread, cheese, and a libation to Bacchus” had been set forth. Her form of libation proved to be delicious cider; other hostesses may suit themselves in this respect. The sowan, according to Scotch history, is an oaten cake baked hard; Miss Jones preferred to tempt her guests with a modernized Scotch cooky, made as follows: One-half cup of butter, two cups of brown sugar, one-half cup of milk, one-half teaspoonful of soda, two cups of flour, a pinch of salt, one teaspoonful of cream tartar, one teaspoonful of cinnamon, two and one-half cups of rolled oats. The mixture is to stand an hour before being dropped in small cakes upon buttered tins and baked in a moderate oven.

nutcrack night wet sleeve

And then came the final test, the trial of the wet shirt-sleeve. The left sleeve of a shirt was given to each of the seekers to be dipped into running water. In the night each one ran forth to the creek and dipped it.

Back in the house, the sleeves were hung on separate lines, and each guest watched his or her sleeve steadfastly. This must be done until twelve when the sleeve would be turned. And by whom?

Harper’s Bazar, 1903

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  There was a mysterious vogue for this romantic evocation of archaic superstitions, most of which seem to have been made out of whole cloth or misunderstood by lady folklorists who believed everything the dear old lady in the thatched cottage told them.

The hostess in this case had read entirely too much Rabby Burns, an unsuitable author, in Mrs Daffodil’s view, for an impressionable young woman. Mrs Daffodil knows that she is an impressionable young woman for she hadn’t the wit to realise that had her guests logically pursued her enthusiastic re-enactment of “Old England,” she would have been hung or burnt as a witch after that evocation at the bonfire.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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