Bobbing for Apples — Pomona’s Best

Wenches bobbing-2One Halloween festivity that may lie in some folks’ near future is ‘Bobbing for Apples’.  

The best part of this particular Halloween activity is it’s done at parties for small children and folks don’t show up at my door carrying a tub and a bucket of water and expecting me to supply the apples. That is to say, bobbing is something I can watch from a respectful distance but I don’t have to do anything. “Good,” says I.

The apple/Halloween connection dates to the Roman conquest of England. That’s the four centuries after 43 CE for anyone who doesn’t have the date right on the tip of their tongue.

The Romans pursued a pragmatic policy of folding local religious celebrations into the Roman ones, the better to civilize all these barbarians they now had to deal with. With the admirable intention of Romanizing a holiday, they turned their sights on the Celtic festival of Samhain which fell at the autumn equinox.

Wenches samhain bonfireSamhain was a fine, robust old festival held when the days were about to get shorter and shorter and colder and colder and just generally life would be somewhat more miserable. This was the turn of the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the new year, a time when it was felt the dead were particularly liable to return to haunt the living. Dealing with this annual visitation called for lighting huge sacred bonfires and making sacrifice of items from the harvest and the odd animal they thought the gods might fancy. Folks dressed in costumes of animal heads and skins, did what they could to chase away any bad luck that came through the gates of the netherworld along with the spirits, and did a little foretelling of the future.

Wench Pomona

Pomona, with apple

The Romans looked at Samhain and were immediately reminded of the Festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The connection seems tenuous. We don’t know much about Pomona’s festival, but I rather doubt it involved animal skins and bonfires. Be that as it may, Pomona was particularly associated with apples. It’s not a great stretch to imagine some of the prognostication that was already part of Samhain began to involve apples. They were lying about available at this time of the year, after all.

In any case, that's an argument the divinational virtues of apples may date from as long ago as the Romans. Certainly, we have a variety of appWenches Gabriël_Metsu_-_Woman_Peeling_an_Apple_-_WGA15084-273x300le fortune telling going on in the last few centuries. Who knows how old it is?

One of my favorites superstitions is apple oriented. Young girls, peeling apples, would try to take the skin off in one long, unbroken strip. They’d toss that strip over their shoulder and use hope and imagination to make out a shape or a letter in the way it fell. That would indicate the name of their future husband.

I pare this pippin round and round again,
My shepherd's name to flourish on the plain.
I fling th' unbroken paring o'ver my head,
Upon the grass a perfect L. is read. 

               John Gay, 1714


When I was a kid I’d always try to get the apple peel off in one go. It’s some kinda basic human instinct.

Wench luttrellBobbing for apples — in the north of England called ‘Ducking’ or ‘Dukking’ for apples is centuries old. It comes in both a water format and an ‘apple suspended on a string’ format. That grab-an-apple-in-your-teeth game has been around at least 600 years. The apples-in-cold-wet-water is at least three hundred. Both practices may be much older.

One old divination carried out when bobbing for apples in a basin of water is the young ladies carved a letter on a particular apple. When the young man bobbed for apples she’d see who got ‘hers’.

I imagine the men peeked but that’s just me being cynical.

I feel like apple bobbing is less popular in 2015 than it was even fifty years ago. This might be the general dwindling of folk customs. It might be a greater emphasis on costumes and candy over other traditional activities. And it might be that apples are less of a special treat now than they were a hundred years ago. Even a very fine, sweet eating apple may seem a feeble reward for dunking yer head.

I’m sad when old customs die. Not, you understand, that I’d want to do this myself.

Do you have family ‘harvest time’ traditions? Decorating the house for Halloween? Going out to pick apples? Oktoberfest? Tell me what moves you at this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.


One commenter will win a copy of one of my books — your choice — including Last Chance Christmas Ball. (US residents only. Sorry.)  




Scary Stuff

CharliedracHi, here's Jo (with a pic of Charlie Dracula) putting together the Halloween blog. The Wenches got talking about scary stuff. Turns out, none of us like to read or watch anything that scares us, though some of us did when young. Perhaps it's because our writers' imaginations make imaginary horrors too real? We even have a real ghost story to tell.

I hope that you'll share your thoughts about scary books and films, and especially any real ghost stories if you have any!

Pat Rice

I'm among the wimps who can't read or watch horror. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane freaked me out at a very early age, and I never could watch an entire episode of Hitchcock's The Birds even on a small B&W TV. I loved Poe's poetry when I was a kid…but that was poetry. How could bad things happen in rhyme? I don't watch TV shows with violence and suspense, and I don't read horror and thrillers even now. They literally give me nightmares. Birds

I think my aversion to all things scary is because we live in a scary world. Reading the newspapers is difficult enough without imagining worse. And that might be another key. I can imagine far, far worse than what I read in the papers, and I can "see" the events in a horror novel as if they're real. I just don't need those images in my head!

Read more

A Plague of Cats and Rats

Rice_TheIrishDuchess_200x300Halloween! I always get the fun holidays. And as usual, when I dig around looking for a morsel of history, I turn up fascinating facts. Did you know that Oliver Cromwell’s hatred of witches was a serious factor in the particularly virulent outbreak of plague in England in 1665-6?

I was simply poking around, looking for any All Hallow’s Eve practices in the Regency era, when I stumbled across the fascinating bit about cats. It seems the superstitious believed cats were “familiars,” evil spirit guides for witches. Cromwell and his compadres had a decided Inquisition mentality and decided to eradicate witches…and cats. Honestly, I think the cats must have just looked smarter than Cromwell’s fanatics, which made the hunters paranoid–spooky cats will take over the world! Or suck your brains out. 

I do not even want to consider what kind of sport they made of all those poor London alley cats, but the ghosts of those cats got their revenge. Without cats, the rats escaping the ships in England’s ports spread like wildfire. And we all know that fleas from rats caused the plague. So thousands of people died from superstition.
File0001705986272And kept on dying because once doctors figured out fleas caused the disease, they then condemned all cats and dogs to death because they carried fleas. Science and superstition, hand-in-hand, not a pretty sight.

Regency era Halloween was such a hodgepodge of customs, history, and muddled church and pagan rituals that most Anglicans simply celebrated Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. Even then, the habit of begging for pennies or food—previously for prayers for the dead—became begging for pennies for
File9251291040084fireworks. The Scots still had their good Celtic celebrations, but Jane Austen wouldn’t have been familiar with the pagan celebration of a night when spirits slipped through the thinning veil between the old year and the new one. It’s possible English girls had heard the superstition about eating an apple in front of a mirror in hopes of seeing their beloved, but those kind of tricks, and treats like flummery (usually a molded porridge) and barmbrack (a type of Irish raisin bread), wouldn’t be recognized as a holiday celebration in Jane’s home.

But Jane would have read the same kind of horror novels as we read today. The Mysteries of Udolpho play an important part in Northanger Abbey, so Jane was obviously aware of gothic horror stories. Frankenstein was published in 1816, so there was some chance she read that. “The Headless Horseman” came out in 1820
759px-John_Quidor_-_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Smithsonianand too late for Jane, but certainly fair game to the characters in our favorite era.

I know as a genre, we play fast and loose with the actual dates of the prince’s regency. My new release in the Regency Nobles series, Irish Duchess, is set in 1821,(Book View Café, November 6) but the characters romp through earlier books and years, so I count them as Regency related.

Since we don’t have kids around our house, we’ve been slacking off on the Halloween traditions. What will you be doing this year?


Anne here. Shh, I'm typing this furtively in the half-dark, hoping nobody can hear me.

It's Halloween*! Once again it's caught me unprepared — my head's been in 19th century London where it's Spring, not Halloween. And so I'm sharing this brilliant Halloween photo of Harrod's in London, because I'm feeling slightly floored, too. Harrods I never get Halloween right.

(* For those of you who are reading this and thinking "What's wrong with the woman, she still has plenty of time to get ready for Halloween!" I would remind you that downunder, we're nearly a day ahead of you. And Halloween is happening now!)

So flocks of small, costumed children have been ringing my doorbell all evening, and since the first horribly disappointed lot, I'm hiding out, not answering the door. Because I have nothing to give them, not a sausage! (Which doesn't mean we give out sausages at Halloween in Australia, it just means my cupboard is bare. Exceptionally so.)

There are two or three slightly softened, possibly furry cough lollies left over from my last cold — do you think they'll do? No, I didn't think so. Which is why I'm sitting here in the twilight, typing as quietly as I can, avoiding disappointing more kids. I never get Halloween right.

Last year I was heading off to the supermarket in my car and saw flocks of little ghosts and witches excitedly roaming the neighborhood demanding sweets with menaces, and I thought, "Aha, this time I'll have something for them," and I bought chocolates and sweets and felt very Halloween prepared.

Jack-o'-LanternAnd I waited. And waited.
And… not a sausage. 
All the little ghouls and ghosts and witches had disappeared off the streets and gone in to have their dinner and do their homework and watch TV shows set in places where kids have proper neighbors who know what to do at Halloween.

And there I was with all kinds of goodies of the kind that I don't normally allow in my house because I would eat them. 

And yes, you know the rest. I did, gradually, nibble my way through the entire Halloween collection.

Which really was not the plan.

The thing is, we don't really do Halloween in Australia. The first time I ever saw a carved Halloween pumpkin was the year we went to live in Scotland, when I was eight, and it wasn't a pumpkin, it was a carved Hallowe'en turnip. People hung them on their porches and sat them on front steps and they glowed eerily in the dark. I thought they were wonderful, and I tried to make one myself — it was a miserable failure — turnips are quite hard to carve —but we managed to hollow it out and stick a candle inside the poor wonky thing and I was thrilled anyway.

When I was growing up in Australia the big day was 5th November — Bonfire Night, part Guy Fawkes Night, part clean up the rubbish before summer to clear away fuel for bushfires. It was the highlight of my year. I love a good bonfire, and I adore fireworks. 

We used to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and though we kids knew it was because he'd tried to blow up parliament, it was a trifle bewildering, considering the way our parents talked about politicians and the government. But he'd clearly botched the job so we thought that was probably why he was being burnt. 

Bonfire night was something we prepared for for months, dragging fallen branches up from the bush, and collecting old car tyres and other burnable rubbish. The bonfire was lit as darkness fell — echoes of Samhain — and the blaze that went up thrilled my little heart every time and still does. All the neighbors would be there, and in the dark you'd see other bonfires in the distance. It was such a connection — with the community, and with the past.
Bonfire(Courtesy of 

We'd have fireworks — we'd saved up for months to purchase them —  sky rockets launched precariously from coke bottles, and various others with intriguing names — Roman candles, Vesuvius, Catherine wheels. Little kids waved sparklers, and older ones let off crackers, from the tiny tom thumbs (or squibs) to "penny bungers" or "thrupenny bungers" that made the loudest bangs. I adore fireworks and the scent of crackers going off takes me back to those nights every time.

We'd stay up as late as we possibly could, and the last thing we'd do before being forced to bed was to tuck dozens of foil-wrapped potatoes into the ashes. Then next morning at crack of dawn, we'd creep out and start raking the warm ashes for the potatoes, and eat them, still hot, with butter and salt. We'd rekindle the fire from the coals and cook sausages for breakfast. Bliss.

We don't seem to have Guy Fawkes night any more in Australia. I think it disappeared because they banned fireworks, probably because there were always injuries, what with huge fires and kids throwing crackers. And maybe because bonfires and fireworks started bushfires — November is the beginning of the dry summer period here and we're always in danger of bushfires. Or maybe it's because I live in the city now. I'm not sure.

However, thanks to watching so many TV shows from the USA, the kids in Australia have started to go Trick or Treating. I don't blame them. What's not to love about dressing up in scary costumes and going around the streets legitimately demanding sweets from strangers?

It's not widespread yet — some years you get no kids knocking on the door, other times (like tonight) you get lots. The thing is, it's probably the first time any of these small polite ghouls and ghosts and witches have gone trick-or-treating, polite because usually their mothers or fathers are with them, hovering discreetly in the background. The parents have never gone trick or treating either. There's no protocol for it here — none of us know any more than we've seen on TV.

And it's risky business, trick or treating in Australia. Apart from people like me for whom Halloween is a non-event on the calendar, and who forget to stock up with chocolate and lollies, or just stare at you blankly, people are just as likely to greet them with a diatribe about Halloween not being our tradition and how you kids today watch too much American TV!
And then the question is, who is scaring whom. LOL

It's all a long way from the old Celtic festival of Samhain where all this started. But traditions are not set in stone and are constantly evolving, and so the old Celtic practices of Samhain  gave way to the celebration of All Hallows Eve, Christian festivals and celebrations grafted onto pagan ones, and resulting in a mix of both, and so it goes. These days for most people Halloween is just an excuse for some fun, and I'm all in favor of fun. Barmbrack

One day I'll get it right and bake barmbrack, a kind of fruit bread my grandmother used to bake, in which silver tokens symbolizing various future events would be baked. There's an Irish recipe here. And here's a recipe that doesn't involve yeast. Lots of fun and delicious too. And I love the range of ghoulish halloween food I found on this site. I'm definitely going to try those spider chocolate crackles and those adorable witches hats. If I'd been better prepared, I might even have baked some of these for the little neighborhood ghoulies.

So what are your plans for Halloween? Do you have any special seasonal traditions, or bonfire and firework memories to share? And how do you prepare for trick-or-treaters?