St. Mark's Eve was a time to foretell who would die or become sick during the following year in a particular village. For three years in a row, certain village folk would gather by the village church's door between eleven o'clock on the night of 25 April, waiting there until one o'clock the following morning. On the third year, the group that had made it their mission to participate in the St. Mark's Eve celebration, would make note of who enterred the church and how long they stayed inside before departing.
It was believed that actual townspeople did not enter the church on St. Mark's Eve, but rather the spirits of those who would die or become sick. It was believed that the victims were not even aware that their spirits were moving about and passing through the church's portal.
The believers in the efficacy of the St. Mark's Eve ritual claimed that if a ghost entered the church but did not leave during the two hours, then that person would die during the following year. Those townspeople whose spirits did enter and then leave the church were believed to get sick during the following year, the length of their illnesses being goverened by the length of time their spirits spent in the church.
Another tradition claimed that the head of each household, before retiring for the night on St. Mark's Eve, would sift the ashes evenly over the hearth. In the morning, should a print of one of the family members' shoe be found imprinted in the ashes, then that person would be destined for death during the year. Of course this superstition provided ammunition to a mischievous child who would leave the bed for the purpose of pressing a sibling's shoe into the ashes.
Work was forbidden during St. Mark's Eve day. It was believed that misfortune would befall anyone who violated the injunction against working on that day. Vaughan's Golden Grove, published in 1608 noted that:
In the yeare of our Lord 1589, I being as then but a boy, do remember that an ale wife, making no exception of dayes, would needes brue upon Saint Marke's days; but loe, the marvailous worke of God! whiles she was thus laboring, the top of the chimney tooke fire; and before it could bee quenched, her house was quite burnt. Surely, a gentle warning to them that violate and prophane forbidden daies.
A variation on the theme was that a lady would bake a flat cake of wheat or barley meal containing an eggshell full of salt. The cake would be placed on a griddle and onto the hearth to bake. One of the house doors would be opened, and the lady, intent on knowing her future spouse, would sit by to watch. By and by the future lover would enter the house to turn the cake.
It was also believed that if a young lady held her smock up before a fire on St. Mark's Eve, she would be able to see the image of her future lover in the shadows cast on it.
The custom of watching for spirits on St. Mark's Eve lasted from the 17th to the late 19th Centuries.