Our modern holiday of Halloween, or Hallowe’en, has quite ancient roots in Celtic lands such as Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Mann. But nowhere are the roots stronger than in Ireland — the home of Samhain.
FEAST OF THE DEAD AND THE NEW YEAR
Halloween’s original name is ‘Samhain’ (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in):
Samhain roughly means “summer’s end” in ancient Gaelic. It was (and for many modern pagans still is) the fire festival which marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. The celebrations were mainly held at night because the Celts measured time by nights rather than by days, as we do today. At this time of transition, it was said the veil between the worlds was quite thin, and therefore it was easy for the dead and other spirits to cross over into our world. Samhain/Halloween is thus the “feast of the dead”. The later Christian name was “All Hallow’s Eve” representing the night before “All Saints Day”, a catch-all holiday to honor all deceased loved ones. Samhain is still used in modern Irish to refer to the month of November.
No one knows exactly why bonfires were a part of Samhain festivities. There are probably several reasons, from keeping evil spirits at bay to lighting the way for celebrants (living and dead) and providing a warm place to gather for drinks and music. Today in Ireland, many people also set off fireworks. This custom may have been borrowed from the English Guy Fawkes Night celebrated on November fifth. It is traditional to drop a cutting of your hair into a Halloween bonfire; that night you may dream of your future spouse.
Guising is an old term for dressing up in a mask and/or costume. It is a common part of many folk holidays (for example Irish “Straw boys” on St. Steven’s Day). At Samhain, the masks were likely meant to allow one to pass unnoticed by all the real spirits about (or else be whisked away by them!). It is also likely that the ancient Druids used costumes in rituals during which they played the part of spirits — good spirits to bless the community or nasty spirits to punish the wicked. This is the most likely origin of Trick-or-Treating. As a householder, you’d want to offer gifts and hospitality to the wandering spirits rather than risk their anger! Folk would also go from door to door in a practice called “souling” — they would pray for those who had passed in that home. These guests were given small cakes in exchange.
By the way, just in case a wicked spirit does spot you, you can stop it from stealing you away by grabbing some dust from under your foot and throwing it in their face. They will also be obliged to release any other souls they have caught.
Another classic way to chase off evil spirits from your home is the lighting of jack-o-lanterns. As the head was the most powerful part of the body, using its image as a talisman made sense. Turnips were caved out, and lit with candles to scare away goblins and faeries.
Though the custom no doubt dates well back into the pagan Iron Age, the most famous origin story for the custom is from the the 18th century or thereabouts:
A wicked blacksmith named “Jack” who conspired with the Devil was denied entry into Heaven. Condemned to wander the earth for all eternity, he begged Satan for a light to carry. He was given a burning coal. This he placed inside a hollowed-out turnip.
When the Irish emigrated to North America, they brought the custom of carving turnips with them, but quickly discovered that American gourds and pumpkins worked much better. Nowadays, even folks back in Ireland use pumpkins. Carving turnips is hard!
Lights were also important for guiding good spirits back home for their annual visit. (see food below)
LUCKY FUN AND GAMES
“Snap Apple” is the Irish name for the game of biting at an apple hung on a string while blindfolded. “Bobbing for Apples” is essentially the same challenge, but using a bunch of apples in a tub of water. The winner is the one who actually catches an apple or takes a good bite out of one. The prize is the apple, plus good luck for the coming year. Apple peels can also be dropped on the floor to reveal the initials of a future spouse (you have to peel the magic apple in one piece though).
Still not sure about your future spouse after all that? There’s one more thing to try: Go to the nearest cabbage patch and blindfold yourself, then try to pick a nice cabbage. The more dirt on the roots when you pull it, the more money your spouse will have. Now take a bite to see if they will be “sweet” or “bitter” to live with.
It was presumed that dead relatives would visit one’s home during the festivities. So often an extra set of chairs and place settings at the dinner table were arranged. Many households would hold a traditional ‘Dumb Supper’. On the eve of Samhain, dinner would be served in absolute silence. At the head of the table, a place was set for the ancestors. Food and drink would be served to this place without looking directly at the seat — to see the dead could bring misfortune. After the meal, the plate of food and full cup were taken outside and left near the woods for the Pookas.
Samhain was also a harvest festival. Seasonal fruits and vegetables such as apples were always enjoyed as was cider and beer. The traditional dish for the holiday feast is Colcannon, a mixture of mashed potato, cabbage, and onions. See the recipe below.
Another fun food, and game, is the traditional fruitcake called Bairin Breac (barmbrack). This delicacy has special tokens baked inside for foretelling the future (always a big part of Celtic fire festivals).
Some slices would be lucky, some unlucky:
- a pea or rag = poverty
- a bean or coin = wealth
- a religious medal = the finder may enter a convent or seminary
- a ring = marriage or at least romance
- a stick = tough times or a fight
You can bake your own Barmbrack using the recipe below.
– 4 lbs potatoes (about 7-8 large russet potatoes)
– 1 head of green cabbage or kale
– 1 c. milk or cream
– 1 stick (4oz) butter, divided into three parts
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 4-5 scallions, chopped (optional)
– Salt and pepper to taste
– Fresh Parsley or chives
Peel and put the potatoes in a pot to boil. While they are cooking, remove the core from the cabbage, slice the leaves thinly, and place in a large saucepan. Cover with boiling water. Keep at a slow rolling boil until the cabbage is just wilted and has turned a dark green (usually 3-5 minutes). Test it. Try not to let it overcook, slightly under-cooked is preferable.
When the cabbage is cooked, drain well and squeeze out any excess moisture. Return to the saucepan. Add one third of the butter and cover. Leave it covered and in a warm place, but not on a burner. Chop your onion. Either saute it in butter, or cook it with the cabbage.
When the potatoes are soft, drain the water and return to the saucepan. With the drained potatoes in, set the burner to low, leaving the lid off so that any excess moisture can evaporate. When they are perfectly dry, add the milk to the saucepan, along with a third of the butter and the chopped scallions. Allow the milk to warm but not boil – it is about right when the butter has fully melted and the pot is starting to steam.
Now use a potato masher or fork to mash the potatoes thoroughly. Do NOT pass through a ricer or beat in a mixer. This will ruin the texture of the dish. Mix in the cabbage and onion.
Before serving, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with fresh parsley or chives. Make a well in the centre of the mound of potato and add the last third of the butter.
Bairin Breac (Barnbrack) Recipe
Servings: 8-10 (makes 1 loaf)
– 2 c. strong, black tea
– 2 c. mixed, dried fruit (raisins or currants, prunes, apricots, dates, cranberries, candied orange peel, etc.)
– 1 c. milk at room temperature
– 1 packet (.25 oz.) active dry yeast
– 2 t. + 1/4 c. sugar
– 3 c. all-purpose flour
– 2 t. mixed spice*
– 1 egg, beaten
– 1/3 c. sweet butter, softened at room temperature
– 1 t. salt
Charms, each wrapped in a small piece of parchment or brown paper Honey to glaze
* Mixed spice is a blend popular in the UK. Similar to pumpkin pie spice mix, it is basically equal parts allspice, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.
1. Soak the dried fruit in the tea overnight, then drain well – for an hour or so.
2. Mix the yeast, warm milk and 2 t. of sugar together and set aside for 5-10 minutes to activate the yeast.
3. In another bowl, sift together the flour, 1/4 c. sugar and spices. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the yeast mixture, beaten egg, softened butter and salt.
4. Stir with a wooden spoon to mix the ingredients well until it turns into dough.
5. Knead the dough on a floured surface for 5-10 minutes, until the dough is smooth but still a little sticky.
6. Knead the dried fruit a little at a time into the dough until all the fruit is incorporated. This is the tricky part; be patient and do it little by little. And don’t over-knead the fruit or it will break into bits.
7. Remove the dough to a large, buttered bowl. Cover it with a clean towel and set in a warm corner until it’s doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.
8. Remove the dough to a floured surface and punch it down to deflate. Knead it lightly for 2-3 minutes, then push the charms into the dough until hidden.
9. Pat it back into a smooth ball and place it in a buttered 8-inch round cake pan. Cover it with a towel and let it rise again until doubled in size, around 60 minutes.
10. Preheat the oven to 400F.
11. Place the loaf in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the top is browned and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove to a rack and cool.
12. If you like, brush warmed honey over the brack to glaze it, then slice.
13. Serve with butter and a cup of tea.