by James McQuiston
Celtic Guide Magazine
The tradition of “dumb supper” began during the Middle Ages. It involves a celebration to be held in which food is consumed by celebrants, but only after inviting ancestors to join in.
This gave families a chance to interact with the spirits of their departed until they left, following the dinner.
Children would play games to entertain the dead, while adults would update them on the past year’s news.
That night, doors and windows might be left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes that had been left for them.
“Dumb,” in this case, is a synonym for mute or silent, as the most important rule was that a dumb supper be conducted in complete silence.
It has been conjectured that young women would try to use this celebration to meet their soon-to-be husband's spirit.
Some say the dumb supper has roots in an English "love divination," one that was apparently once fairly well known.
Americans, especially in rural regions, which often had a Scottish/Irish ethnicity, perpetuated the custom into the 20th century.
From Oxfordshire to Ozark county, it is said, 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. Thus, perhaps, the connection to the "haunted house!"
One account tells of a dumb supper, in which 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 hopefully walk through the door, or even arrive in person.
This is perhaps the source of the widely held belief that soul mates might meet on Halloween. My father and mother did just that, both attending the same Halloween party and falling in love.
It has long been thought, in Celtic traditions, that the veil between life and death is thinnest on Halloween, or Samhain, and this somehow allows for not only communication with the dead, but also for living spirits to connect in an extraordinary way.
Now, Halloween is a holiday celebrated each year on October 31st. The tradition originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as a time to honor all saints.
Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.
Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, festive gatherings, donning costumes and eating treats.
This day typically marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.
On the night of October 31st they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.
So Samhain, or Halloween, could bring you the good fortune of a new love, the connection with a relative who had passed over, or in the worst cases, a good scare from an evil spirit.
Today, for most of the world, it is a day of fun and frivolity, for giving out candy, and for dressing in crazy costumes – and don't forget, scaring the heck out of your loved ones or the neighbors. Just remember to play it safe on the streets, and when accepting treats!