Corn —Associated with Halloween because corn (which usually refers to OATS outside of America) ripens in late October. Corn husking contests were popular at nineteenth-century American Halloween PARTIES (red ears of corn could be used in divination), and shocks of corn and corn stalks still are popular party and yard decorations.

Corn (or oats) has been employed in Halloween FORTUNE-TELLING for at least four centuries, although this use probably dates back to the first millennium. One of the most popular methods directed that the fortuneseeker go to the cornfield alone on Halloween night, and THREE times go through the motions of throwing (winnowing) corn against the WIND; on the third time, an apparition of the future spouse would pass by, and the keen observer might also be able to discern something about his or her station in life. A Scottish variation (as mentioned by ROBERT BURNS in his poem “Hallowe’en”) involved going to the barn and taking both doors off their hinges, for there was the danger that mischievous spirits might shut the doors and cause harm; then the wecht, or instrument used for winnowing the corn, was taken and used to go through all the motions of letting down corn against the wind. This was repeated three times; and on the third time an apparition would pass through the barn, in at the windy door, and out at the other; its appearance would mark its employment or station in life. In another version of corn winnowing, the ritual had to be performed in the name of the DEVIL. In his novel of sixteenth-century Scotland, The Monastery, SIR WALTER SCOTT mentions Halloween divinations, and one character describes the results of corn winnowing: “‘I had not winnowed the last weight clean out, and the moon was shining bright upon the floor, when in stalked the presence of my dear Simon Glendinning, that is now happy. I never saw him plainer in my life than I did that moment…’”

A simpler custom suggested hiding in the cornfield on Halloween night in order to hear what would transpire over the coming year.

In one divination, a spoonful of corn kernels (or sometimes beans or rice kernels) was emptied to a counting rhyme which would determine the profession of one’s future spouse. In an American fortune-telling game, each guest tried to empty three tablespoons full of corn kernels into a quart milk bottle by watching in a MIRROR. The player with the highest score (number of kernels in the bottle) will be the one who at the age of 50 will have amassed the fortune in thousands of dollars as indicated by the number of kernels of corn.

One Irish custom was to take the last sheaf of corn at HARVEST time (usually just before Halloween) and hang it in the kitchen; then at CHRISTMAS it was taken down and spread out along a nearby hedge to feed the birds, a practice which brought good luck. The last sheaf was sometimes called “the corn maiden” (possibly derived from the old word “mod-dun,” meaning an elevated spot, where the end of harvest was announced), the “CORN DOLLY,” or “the kern baby,” although in some areas it was the “CAILLEACH,” or old woman. In his book on Festivals, Ceremonies, and Customs, Sir Benjamin Stone records a Northumberland tradition, in which the men “got the kern” at the close of reaping and dressed it in “a white frock with colored ribbons and crowned with corn ears.” This “kern baby” was then carried to the barn on a pole, and was later placed in the church for harvest festivities.

In the Scottish custom known as “crying the kirn” (it has been suggested that “kirn” is actually derived not from corn but from “cairn,” where Halloweens were supposedly once celebrated as SAMHAIN), on the last day of harvest, when the last handful of grain was secured, the reapers proceeded to the nearest high point and loudly proclaimed that harvest was done. Their scythes were collected, then thrown into the air; the direction of the falling hook was supposed to indicate the direction in which the reaper to whom it belonged was to go to seek work next harvest. If a hook broke in falling, an early death was predicted for its unfortunate owner; when the point sank into the soil, the owner would marry soon.

One harvest tradition involved winning the Cailleach, or last sheaf of corn. This was left standing but tied, and workers took turns throwing their sickles at it, to see who could cut it down (later, workers were blindfolded and swung their scythes to see who could “snig” the Cailleach). It was then taken in as a centerpiece at the harvest feast, and tied to the ceiling in the kitchen to bring good luck for the next year. It might also be hung up over the door, and used in divination: The first one through the door after the Cailleach was hung would be a future spouse.

Another corn harvest tradition involved biting off a piece of the cart that brought home the last load of corn, and then holding that piece in the mouth while going to listen at a NEIGHBOR’s window; the first name heard would be that of the future spouse (the last load of grain communicated power to the cart).

It was once popular to weave various Halloween items from corn, straw and or rushes, such as hats, PARSHELLS, or rush ladders. The STRAWBOYS actually made costumes from straw.

In Scotland, it was noted that every animal in the barn received a whole “Hallow” (or sheaf of corn) for breakfast on Halloween, in addition to the usual amount of food; in the household the day was preserved as a “fanteen,” or fast, until the evening.

CORN MAZES are now popular HALLOWEEN ATTRACTIONS throughout the United States and Great Britain.


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