If you think American Halloween has gone off the deep end with “sexy” costumes and drunken debauchery, you’re ignoring traditions dating back to the 18th century. Celtic Scottish and Irish versions of the holiday, a harvest festival known as “Samhain” in Gaelic, were all about the hookups. The difference is in the mechanics.
Whereas a potential couple in 2013 may meet over one too many sips from an unidentifiable punch, a young man and woman from the 1700s would bond over the plucking of kale. Yes, that same leafy alternative you’re New Age friend turns into chips and is currently on the tables of all the hippest restaurants in New York. Back in the day, Samhain partygoers would take part in the ”pou (pull) the stalks,” a divination activity that predicted whether two singles stood a chance for love.
October 31st was believed to be the pinnacle of spiritual activity across the land, making the kale primed for seering. Love-hungry participants would be blindfolded and sent into the garden, digging around in the dirt until they felt that special tingle that tells a person, “Yeah, this is my kale,” and then pull the head out of the ground.
In her book Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear, Diane C. Arkins describes the deliberation process faced by young kale pluckers:
“Plants could then be assessed against this telling barometer of attributes: a full, green head symbolized an attractive young mate; a closed white stalk was indicative of an elderly or stingy spouse; dirt clinging to the planet’s roots presaged wealth; clean roots foretold poverty; the flavor of the root—sharp, sweet, bitter, or insipid— was said to mimic the mate’s disposition, while it’s shape—stout or lanky, bold or graceful—was taken to represent the mate’s physical build.”
Kale wasn’t the only option either. The Scottish Celts encouraged eligible young woman to name a handful of hazelnuts for each of her suitors, then chuck’em in the fireplace. The nut that burned to ash instead of exploding was the gal’s soulmate. The green option might be healthier.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on Vulture, Time Out New York, and The Hollywood Reporter. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino.