‘Long may those old and innocent customs be perpetuated in our province’ – Halloween in Lisburn Past

Halloween is with us once again. In shop windows costumes, props, sweets and nuts have been displayed for weeks now. The holiday is now more popular than ever. Although more commercial than in previous eras, Halloween thankfully still retains many of its older traditions. The fun of dressing up, party games, and the distribution of fruit and nuts are still central to celebrations (although sweets have definitely overtaken fruit and nuts).

The historical archives of our local newspapers provide a window onto our past, and from them we can get a sense of how Lisburn celebrated Halloween in days gone by. On Halloween 90 years ago, the Lisburn Standard gave a brief history of the festival from the pre-Christian era up until more modern times, rightly noting that it was a harvest celebration day ‘generally associated with nuts and apples’. Halloween also was, the paper stated, a time when ‘all the old superstitions’ could be traced through the seasonal games which were popular at that time. Indeed, back in October 1891 the Standard took its readers through some of the more romantic local Halloween folk customs and games, which were popular in the Victorian era:

‘On Hallow Eve, in many family circles, two nuts are made to represent two engaged lovers. The nuts are burned, and in accordance with how the flame behaves so is their likelihood of getting wed’. The article went on, ‘Then the ashes are cooled and dreamt on by the parties, what he or she dreams that night should be paid particular notice to. After that comes the eating of the apple dumpling, in which a ring is placed. Happy is the person that gets the ring, for he or she is to be the first wedded’.


Lisburn Workhouse. ILC&M Collection
Lisburn Workhouse. ILC&M Collection

Games aside, the distribution of nuts and apples to mark Halloween celebrations was evident all around, even in locations which we may not automatically think of. Within the walls of Lisburn’s workhouse, a building which had its own ghoulish appearance, Halloween was celebrated by the inmates both young and old. Newspapers in the late nineteenth-century often covered workhouse events. Each Halloween it was recorded that apples and other ‘treats and dainties’ were distributed among the workhouse inmates to mark the day.

While no doubt a special occasion for workhouse inmates, being given treats of apples and nuts was not an everyday occurrence for many on the outside either. An interesting article in the Lisburn Herald days leading up to Halloween of 1892, the news of the importation of 500 barrels of American apples was met with great interest. The paper claimed that the apples, destined for local Halloween markets,  would be ‘welcomed with pleasure by young and old at this season’.  

Lisburn Herald Oct 1896. British Newspaper Archive Collection.

A browse through the adverts section of the local papers reveals how local businesses attempted to cash in on what had become a lucrative family festival. Grocer, James Coulter of Bow Street invited shoppers to try a variety of exotic Halloween treats such as Muscatel and Valencia raisins which he had in stock for ‘Hallow’een 1896’. A seasonal advert placed in 1924 by William Ritchie Grocers of Bridge Street, advertised similar, promising those celebrating that he had ‘Tons of Apples and Nuts for Hallow’een’ in stock to meet the demand.

Which Halloween customs or practices do you remember from when you were young? Get in touch with us and let us know.

Lisburn Herald 1924. British Newspaper Archive Collection.
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