Halloween is fast approaching. I know because I just spent a few days with my niece and I got the details on this much anticipated holiday from her costume (a garden fairy) to the fact that old people do not wear costumes (she’s four). She informed me of this sad fact when I asked her what my outfit should be, but softened the blow by offering me some of her future Halloween stash. I asked her if she was going to carve a pumpkin, but with all the focus on her costume it was not something she had considered, and being a four year old, she immediately countered with a lot of “why” questions. Why, indeed? I was curious as to why pumpkins came to play such an integral part of this season, and did not want to answer all her questions with “I don’t know”.
About the Holiday
Halloween, or its equivalent, is one of the world’s oldest holidays, and still celebrated in many countries, such as Britain, Ireland, Canada, parts of Latin America and Spain. The United Kingdom puts its own spin on scary celebration with Guy Fawke’s Day. In Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, All Souls’ Day, the third day of the three-day Hallowmas observance, is the most important part of the celebration for Christians. In Ireland and Canada, Halloween is celebrated much as it is in America, with trick-or-treating and costume parties.
Its roots are in the Celtic festival of Samhain [pronounced: sow- wen] from the Old Irish samhain and the Christian holy day of All Saints’ Day. Samhain celebrates the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, and may be regarded as the “Celtic New Year”. Traditionally, the festival was when the ancient Celtic pagans took stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Celts believed that on October 31st, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by stirring up trouble such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. The costumes and masks worn at Halloween goes back to the Celtic traditions of copying and confusing the evil spirits. In Scotland, for instance, the dead were impersonated by young men with masked or blackened faces, dressed in white. In the United States, this mostly secular celebration continues the scary traditions that Irish immigrants carried to North America when they escaped the Potato Famine in the 1840s. One of these traditions was the carving of the jack-o’-lantern.
Pumpkin carving is a popular part of modern America’s Halloween celebration. Come October, pumpkins can be found about everywhere; on doorsteps to dinner tables. Part of preparation for this event includes careful selection of the pumpkins so visits to pumpkin patches, and the craziness that ensues, are mandatory. Piles of pumpkins are carefully inspection by youngsters who are the most critical of critics. In addition to pumpkins, colorful Indian corn, and crazy looking gourds add to the fall decorations that adorn many households.
That Jack O’Lantern – How Did you Get to Be A Pumpkin?
People have been making jack o’lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack was reluctant to cough up the money for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack pocketed the money and put the coin into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from reverting back to his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, the Devil would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick some fruit. [Me thinks the Irish devil is a bit simple.] While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for another ten years.
Soon after, Jack died, and God would not allow such a devious fella into heaven, and the Devil, stung by the tricks Jack had played on him, kept his word not to claim Jack’s soul, but refused Jack’s entrance into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has roamed the earth ever since. The Irish refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people made their Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them in windows or near doors to scare off Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Believing that the head was the most powerful part of the body, containing the spirit and the knowledge, the Celts used the “head” of the vegetable to frighten off the spirits. Welsh, Irish and British myth are full of legends of the Brazen Head, which may be a folk memory of the ancient Celtic practice of headhunting – the results of which were often nailed to a door lintel or brought to the fireside to speak their wisdom. When immigrants from these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition to the United States, they found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America were a suitable replacement to the turnips and potatoes for the perfect jack o’lanterns.
Trick-or-treating and Guising
Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween. Children go in costume from house to house, asking for treats and receive usually candy, with the question, “Trick or treat?” The word “trick” refers to a (mostly idle) threat to perform mischief on the homeowners if no treat is given. In some parts of Ireland and Scotland children still go guising – the child performs a show, i.e. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats. They might also play tricks on their neighbors, such as “knock-a-dolly,” a prank in which children knock on their neighbors’ doors, but flee before the door is opened.
Games and Things
Traditional Halloween games abound, for entertainment at those costume parties. One common game is dunking or apple bobbing, in which apples float in a tub of water, and the participants must use their teeth to remove an apple from the tub. Another common game involves hanging up treacle or donuts by strings; which must be eaten without using hands while they remain attached to the string; inevitably leading to a very sticky face.
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In Puicíní (pronounced “poocheeny”), an Irish game played with a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled, and the seated person then selects one by touch; the contents of the saucer determine the person’s life for the following year. Of course, in America, the Ouija board is the “go to” resource for checking out future spouses and other details about the future when waiting for the event would just will not do. Finally, unmarried Irish women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and stared into a mirror on Halloween night, their future husband’s visage would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die a spinster, they would see a skull instead. The custom was so common that greeting cards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries depicted this tradition.
Some Halloween Foods
Candy apples or toffee apples are a treat from my childhood, but I am determined not to leave them behind. If you never tried one, they are apples with a popsicle stick inserted for easy handling, and the outside is coated in caramel, or a sweet and sticky topping, and if you are lucky they might be rolled in nuts.
One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is either baking or purchasing a barnbrack (Irish “báirín breac”), which is a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other charms are placed before baking. Whoever gets a ring will find their true love in the ensuing year – similar to the tradition of a king cake at the festival of Epiphany.
Other foods you might find around the holiday:
- Apple cider
- Báirín Breac (Ireland)
- Bonfire toffee (in the UK)
- Candy corn, and can I add that candy corn + salted peanuts is a very addicting combination
- Chocolates, caramels, and gum
- Colcannon or Calcannon – cabbage, bacon, and mashed potatoes (Ireland) – this dish will stick to your ribs
- Novelty candy shaped like skulls, pumpkins, bats, worms, etc.
- Pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread
- Roasted pumpkin seeds
Around the world
This list is just a sampling, many more countries celebrate this holiday around the world.
Mexico, Latin America and Spain
In Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, All Souls’ Day – El Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – takes place on November 2, and is the culmination of a three-day celebration that starts on the evening of October 31. The celebration honors the dead who, it is believed, return to their earthly homes on Halloween. Many families construct an altar in their homes to honor deceased relatives and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, samples of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, and fresh water. Often, a wash basin and towel are left out so that the spirit can wash before feasting. The last time I was in Mexico was shortly after this celebration and we stopped by a grave yard with festive remnants of this event. It was one of the most beautiful places, it was quiet then, but from the brightly covered banners, pictures and skulls, you could tell a celebration had occurred. Sometimes graveyards make me sad, but I left with a smile and a sense of peace. I’ll never forget it.
Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find the way home. Relatives also tidy the gravesites of their departed family members. The grave is then decorated with flowers, wreaths, or paper streamers. On November 2, relatives gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce, and this may include include tequila and a mariachi band!
Guy Fawkes Day, this annual November 5 celebration includes bonfires and fireworks to commemorate Guy Fawkes. Effigies are burned and fireworks are set off. Although it falls around the same time and has some similar traditions, this celebration has little to do with Halloween or the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The English, for the most part, stopped celebrating Halloween when Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was getting popular. As the new religion did not have saints, the followers had no reason to celebrate the eve of All Saints’ Day. However, a new autumn ritual did emerge. Guy Fawkes Day festivities were designed to commemorate the execution of a notorious English traitor, Guy Fawkes.
In 1606 (November 5 to be exact), Fawkes was executed after being convicted of attempting to blow up England’s parliament building. Fawkes was a Catholic who wanted to remove the Protestant King James from power. The original Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated immediately after his execution. The first bonfires, which were called “bone fires,” were staged to burn effigies and symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope. Two centuries would pass before the effigies of Guy Fawkes replaced the pope. In addition to making effigies to be burned in the fires, children in some parts of England also walk the streets carrying an effigy or “guy” and ask for “a penny for the guy,” except they pocketed the money. This little tradition is as close to American style”trick-or-treating” as can be found in England.
Ireland – Where It All Began
In Ireland, where Halloween originated, the day is still celebrated much as it is in the United States. In rural areas, bonfires are lit as they were in the days of the Celts, and all over the country, children get dressed up in costumes and spend the evening “trick-or-treating” in their neighborhoods, which can continue into parties. At the parties, many games are played, including “snap-apple,” a game in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree and players attempt to bite the hanging apple. In addition to bobbing for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts, with candy or pastries as the “treasure.” The Irish also play a card game where cards are laid face down on a table with candy or coins underneath them. When a child chooses a card, he receives whatever prize is found below it.
A traditional food eaten on Halloween is báirín breac or barnbrack, a fruitcake that can be bought in stores or baked at home. A muslin-wrapped treat is baked inside the cake that, it is said, can foretell the eater’s future. If a ring is found, it means that the person will soon marry; a piece of straw means that a prosperous year ahead.
báirín breac (brack) of barnbrack
According to Biddy Lennon in her book The Best of Irish – Home Baking, the good people of Cork take the tradition of hiding a ring for marriage to the next level. They include a dried pea for spinsterhood, a bean for riches, a rag for poverty and a pice of matchstick which predicts that your future husband will beat you! I’m leaving the last item out of my loaf!
This bread is technically called a tea brack because it is made with tea soaked dry fruit. Brack is an Irish term for fruit bread. While most of this type of bread found in the bakery is made with yeast, the homemade variety is often leavened with baking powder.
1 ¼ c raisins
1½ c sultanas
¼ c mixed orange and lemon peel (feel free to add other citrus
1 c packed dark brown sugar
2 c brewed hot strong tea
3 c plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove)
2 eggs, beaten
a bit of honey for glaze
1 (8″) cake tin greased and lined with parchment paper
Place fruit, sugar, and peel in a bowl and pour hot tea to cover, and stir to dissolve sugar. Leave overnight. The instructions further add that the tea does not have milk added, but for most Americans, this is not an issue.
Preheat oven to 325º F / 160º C. Shift flour, baking powder, and spices. Mix alternating the egg, fruit and flour, stirring thoroughly. When all has been incorporated add the ring and any other charms and disperse in the cake (for safety sake, do not use plastic and wrap in parchment paper).
Add the mixture to the cake tin and bake for about 1½ hours. About 10 minutes before it is ready, brush the top with honey, and return to the oven to fully cook. Cool in the tin for 15 minutes before turning out, glazed size up, onto a rack to cool.
Here’s one of my favorite pumpkin recipes. To me a bowl of this soup and a piece of crusty bread is the perfect meal. Joyce Goldstein taught me this recipe in a cooking class, and I’ve been making it ever since. The recipe is from her book, Saffron Shores, Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean, and is a keeper in my kitchen. What does Jewish Mediterranean cooking have to do with Halloween? Nothing as far as I can tell, but this pumpkin soup is a favorite, so indulge me.
Pumpkin Squash and Chickpea Soup with Fresh Coriander
Serves 6 to 8
2 c dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
1 large onion chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 # butternut squash or pumpkin peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
8 c vegetable or chicken broth
¼ c fresh cilantro or coriander
S + P
½ tsp cinnamon
sugar to taste (optional)
leaves from one or two bunches of Swiss Chard, cut into strips
In a stock pot combine the chickpeas, onion, carrot, and pumpkin. Add the broth and half of the cilantro. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce hit and simmer until the chickpeas are tender ~ 40 minutes. Pass through a food mill – I love my immersion blender for this part.
Reheat the soup and season with salt, pepper, cinnamon and sugar if using. Rinse, wash and drain the chard. Place over medium head and cook until wilted ~ 3minutes. Drain well. Add to soup, heat through, thin with water as needed. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro and serve hot. Enjoy!