These days, Halloween is a spooky holiday, devoted to ghoulish fun. But for young women in the British Isles and United States, Halloween once was the prime time for love rituals: the day when occult ceremonies could offer a glimpse into the future. Romanticized by poets such as Keats and Burns, these love rituals supposedly allowed young women to divine the identity of their future husbands. Out of all such ceremonies, the most elaborate, meaningful method was the dumb supper.
“Dumb,” in this case, is a synonym for mute or silent, as the most essential rule was that a dumb supper be conducted in complete silence. “Perhaps for many centuries,” writes scholar Paul B. Frazier, “young women have tried to use magic in this manner.” According to folklorist Wayland D. Hand, the dumb supper has roots in an English “love divination,” one that was once “fairly well known.” Americans, especially in rural regions, perpetuated the custom into the 20th century. From Oxfordshire to Ozark county, Hand observes, the ritual was performed with “considerable conformity.”
Young women typically held dumb suppers, but men sometimes attended as well. The setting was usually an isolated place free of disturbances, such as an abandoned or otherwise empty house. In Frazier’s account of a dumb supper, two teenage girls in turn-of-the-century Kentucky “prepared a supper backwards in every respect. The tables were set as wrongly as possible; the chairs were turned backwards; the meal was to be served dessert first.” If anyone spoke a word, the spell was broken. When everything was prepared exactly right, then, at midnight, the spirits of the husbands-to-be would walk through the door, or even arrive in person.
Whether apparition or real, whoever sat next to a girl was sure to be her future husband. In romantic novels and short stories, a dumb supper was the ideal time for a long-lost sweetheart to coincidentally show up. Victorian newspapers, especially in the American South, outlined the process of conducting a dumb supper, while Edwardian novels made them into thrilling plot points. After all, for many young women (and occasionally men), dumb suppers were party games with a supernatural thrill. But in spookier accounts, dumb suppers could herald spinsterhood and death. If a coffin appeared at midnight, that meant that one of the young women wouldn’t marry at all, and would likely die soon.
Sometimes, as Frazier relates, the dumb supper could even predict murder. According to one account from Missouri, two young women set their table in a deserted house. At the stroke of midnight, one saw a coffin, which, horrifyingly, “moved of its own volition” to rest beside her. The other woman was probably happy to instead see a young man walk through the door at midnight, his apparition summoned by the ritual. The young man arrived holding a knife, which he dropped the moment he sat next to his future bride. She picked up the knife and put it in her pocket, and after the silent meal was over, the young man stood and left the room, as “the coffin slid along beside him and followed him out the door.” Soon, the young woman met the man and married him. One day, she showed him the knife. On seeing it, he flew into a rage and stabbed her in the throat and chest until she died.
Of course, this was a folk tale, likely designed to warn young women away from superstitious midnight rituals. The ones that end badly, says Frazier, seem to be warnings that “the use of magic in love affairs is unfair and doomed.” During actual dumb suppers, the only danger was interruption by neighborhood pranksters. According to Hand, the participants’ mothers encouraged boys to burst in, sometimes through the windows.
But the dumb supper, along with other Halloween love rituals, did address a deeply felt need. In a time when a young woman’s future depended on whom she married, discovering the man’s identity in advance was powerfully motivating. As the author of a dumb supper story from 1849 noted, “A young maiden will go through a great deal in order to get some kind of answer to a question that so deeply involves her happiness.”
Another, simpler Halloween love ritual was to simply look into a mirror while walking backwards. In a horror-movie fashion, this caused the face of one’s future husband to return one’s gaze. Such rituals weren’t necessarily tied to Halloween, either. According to folk belief, a young woman who observed an evening of silence and went to bed without dinner—on the night before the Feast of St. Agnes—would dream of her future husband. Another ritual called for eating a hollowed-out egg filled with salt, in hopes of inducing one’s future spouse—in a dream—to provide a cup of water. Nevertheless, writes Hand, dumb suppers usually were held at liminal times between the seasons: In California, New Year’s Eve was the day of choice, while in Maryland it was May Eve.
The appeal of the dumb supper was widespread and long-lasting. Hand collected 35 dumb supper accounts from the British Isles and 100 from the United States, some dating from as far back as the 17th century. He noted that in England and Scotland, young women focused on baking special “dumb cakes” for the midnight supper, while Americans emphasized the backwards meal and settings.
By the 1950s, though, dumb suppers had largely disappeared. In an investigation of Halloween’s romantic roots, journalist Niraj Chokshi points out that children had become the holiday’s main focus. Plus, women had won more control over their destinies, making marriage rituals less enticing.
But dumb suppers are still observed in one quarter: as a soulful ceremony for Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead and the start of winter. (Practicing witches and warlocks, a small but fast-growing spiritual group in the United States, often celebrate Samhain on or around the traditional date of October 31.) Taking place in such appropriate locales as Salem, Massachusetts, the age-old ritual of the dumb supper memorializes and honors the beloved dead. Participants eat meals, often containing the favorite foods of the departed, backwards, starting with dessert and ending with dinner rolls. Of course, the meals are conducted in unbroken silence.
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