Candles—Candles are one of the few constants in all versions of Halloween, at all times and all places; even in twenty-first century America, no house is complete at Halloween without the candle guttering inside the PUMPKIN or the luminaria near the front door. The importance of candles at Halloween certainly has something to do with the holiday’s earliest incarnation as the onset of winter; nights were longer and colder, and evil forces were abroad. The glow of a candle provided warmth, light and protection.

In some parts of England Halloween was once celebrated with a Candle Parade (in Lancashire it was known as “LEET THE WITCHES,” “lating the witches” or simply “lighting the witches”). It was believed that on Halloween night WITCHES gathered to do evil deeds and if lighted candles were carried about between the hours of 11 and MIDNIGHT the witches’ power would be broken. Candles were kept burning in the stable all night to protect the livestock from evil forces. If one’s candle went out (or was blown out by witches) during that time it augured evil for the carrier. One Halloween custom involved placing a lighted candle on the table during the evening’s meal (typically CHAMP or COLCANNON), and if the candle fell it foretold the death of someone in the house.

Candles have also been used at Halloween in remembrance of the dead. Nearly every major commemoration of the dead, from the Japanese BON FESTIVAL to the Mexican DAYS OF THE DEAD to the French TOUSSAINT, involves burning candles for the dead, often at the graveside. In Britain, a popular All Souls’ Eve custom was to light a candle for each deceased relative and place it in the windows of the rooms in which they had died. Candles were also placed in windows in Ireland (sometimes specified as THREE candles) to light the way for wandering souls on Halloween or on All Souls’ Eve. A lighted candle should be placed on Halloween in any window that faces a GRAVEYARD. In Ireland, women made candles that were lighted only on Halloween, before which they prayed for departed souls.

Candles have been used in a variety of FORTUNE-TELLING customs. Some sound like miniature BONFIRE rituals: Twelve candles were placed in a row, and each was named for a month of the year. An unmarried woman would leap over the candles, and if her jump caused any to blow out, that would be the month in which she would be married; if none was extinguished, she was destined for a life of “single blessedness.” In a variation, a jump over a single candle determined whether the jumper would have a trouble-free year (the flame was undisturbed) or one of woe (the candle was knocked over in the attempt).

Many divination customs centered on blowing out candle flames. The method might involve just one large tallow candle in the center of a table, from which unmarried women stood at a distance of three paces and tried three times to blow out the candle; the number of tries it took to extinguish the flame would reveal the qualities of the future husband (one indicated a rich man, two a man of rank, three a workman, and to not blow out the candle at all indicated no marriage). Or a candle divination might involve many candles: Seven candles were lit on a table, and the one seeking to know his future was blindfolded, then spun about three times and told to blow out the candles three times. The number of candles blown out foretold how many years would pass before the fortune-seeker was wed. If all seven were extinguished, it would be in the same year; if none was extinguished, the seeker would remain unmarried (although, curiously enough, there is a variant version of this custom in which the futures foretold are exactly reversed). If twelve candles were used, the candle with the extinguished flame would represent the month in which marriage would occur. A slightly different version of this custom specified that the blindfolded player was led in taking six steps away from three candles, then six steps in return; if the first candle was blown out, the player would marry within a year, if the second, two years, the third, three years, and if no candles were blown out they would remain unmarried.

In another method, a candle flame is blown out through a funnel of paper; if the participant is successful on the first try, he or she will marry for love; if on the second attempt, for beauty; if on the third, for money; and if not by then, the marriage will be unhappy. One American custom involved different colors of candles, all ranged along a table. Those interested in knowing about their future spouses blew toward the candles three times. The candles they succeeded in blowing out would indicate the qualities of their future spouse (i.e., white denoted a mate with a “fine reputation,” pink a handsome husband, etc.). A slight variation on this custom noted that the number of puffs taken to blow out a candle foretold the number of years before marriage; the colors suggested here included white (delight), red (well-fed), green (jealousy) and yellow (good marriage).

One of the oddest (and most macabre) forms of divination by candle combines candles and CHURCHES: First, a clod of earth was obtained from a churchyard, and set up in the home with 12 candles in it, named for 12 members of the Halloween party. Their fates were learned by how steadily the candles burned, and the first candle to be extinguished marked the first guest to die. Candles were combined with other Halloween methods of divination, such as one involving WATER, explained by this anonymous 1937 poem called “The FIRE O’ LOVE”:

Take a tub of water, light a candle end,
On a flat cork place it, then it floating send.
Write your names on paper, twist the slips up tight,
Toss them to the water—many will ignite.
Those whose names float onward, never, never wed.
Thus an eighteenth century old tradition said.

In another custom, the Halloween fortune-seeker ate a spoonful of SALT, then carried a candle in one hand and a MIRROR in the other while walking BACKWARD down the cellar stairs. Providing the seeker survived this, the mirror would reveal the seeker’s future beloved. In a variation, a girl stood with a candle before a mirror on Halloween at midnight, and she would see the face of her husband; if no husband appeared by the stroke of 12, then she would see the DEVIL. Or, in lieu of melted LEAD, candle wax might be dropped into a goblet of water to read the signs formed there.

One fairly recent custom suggests placing a lighted candle in the sink on Halloween, then holding a THREAD over the flame while counting slowly. The number counted before the thread burns in two denotes the number of years before you will marry.

Candles have also been involved in some Halloween begging traditions. Not only are they traditionally used to light JACK-O’- LANTERNS, but they have even been the object of at least one begging custom: In Lancashire in the early nineteenth century, candles were begged house-to-house, rather than SOUL CAKES or other forms of FOOD and drink.

Although not exactly employing candles, a British storytelling game common at Halloween should be mentioned here: A bundle of glowing twigs from the fire was passed from hand to hand, and each person present selected one and then recited an installment of a tale until his stick burned to ashes. Sometimes CABBAGE stalks from divination games practiced earlier that evening were used in place of the twigs.

For about the last half-century figural candles have been popular Halloween decorating items, and vintage candles are now sought-after COLLECTIBLES, especially those made by Gurley, which usually show witches, pumpkins, GHOSTS or black CATS.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved