October 26, 2013

Halloween Magic: Grab Your Cabbage

A few weeks ago I was talking with some people at Boston's History Project about the misbehavior that is allowed during Halloween. During the conversation my friend Andrew, who grew up in western Massachusetts and is in his early 30s, said that when he was a kid the night before Halloween was called "Cabbage Night", and it was the designated time for pulling pranks on neighbors.

Halloween in the past was often a multiple day celebration, and each day had its own name. This tradition continues in some places. Detroit is infamous for its Devil's Night on October 30, and a few years ago I wrote about the multiple days of Halloween in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1930s. In Haverhill a Beggar's Night was celebrated on October 30, but the local youths also practiced vandalism on Cabbage Night on October 28.

So what's up with Cabbage Night? The connection between the humble cabbage and Halloween is not readily apparent unless you are a gardener, in which case you know that cabbage grows well in cooler temperatures. It can be harvested well into the autumn, and in the past when more people kept vegetable gardens heads of cabbage would have been easy targets for pranksters to steal (and throw).

A vintage Halloween postcard with cabbages, from this great Pinterest board.

Happily, there were also more beneficial Halloween roles for cabbage to play. In Ireland, for example, cabbage and potatoes are ingredients in a dish called colcannon. At Halloween, colcannon would be served with a ring, coins, or other items hidden it. Each item foretold a specific future for the person who found it. The ring indicated a happy marriage, the coins wealth, etc.

Cabbage also had a magical role to play in New England once Halloween began to be celebrated here in the nineteenth century. Clifton Johnson found the following divinatory practice in western Massachusetts in the late 1800s:

On Halloween hang up a cabbage-stump over the door. The first person of the opposite sex that comes in is the one you will marry (What They Say In New England, 1896).

Fanny Bergen also found this more elaborate version in Massachusetts:

On Halloween a girl is to go through a graveyard, steal a cabbage and place it above the house-door. The one on whom the cabbage falls as the door is opened is to be the girl’s husband (Current Superstitions, 1896).

I like Bergen's version better. Not only does the girl need to walk through a graveyard (spooky!) and steal (breaking the law!), but her poor beau will get hit on the head by a cabbage (pranking!). It's a little more transgressive and therefore seems more Halloweeny to me. However, I don't condone trespassing, theft, or dropping cabbages on anyone.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, with or without your cabbage!

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