“Celebrate Your Heritage” will be an ongoing series exploring different cultures and their holidays. It is written in the hope that modern families will see how easy it is to return to their roots and incorporate these ethnic spins on their holidays. Happy celebrating!
An Irish Halloween: A History
Halloween was originally the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en), a Celtic celebration commemorating the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. It was believed that the veil between this world and that of the dead was removed on Samhain, allowing the deceased to walk amongst the living.
In an effort to replace Druid festivals and celebrations with holy days, in the 8th century the Catholic Church christened the day after the 31st “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows.” Therefore the day before All Hallows or “All Hallows Eve” became Halloween.
Halloween was very much a family celebration. Families would work to bring in the sheep and cattle from summer pastures, taking stock and preparing for the winter months. The family would then light fires to celebrate the end of the summer months and to bring in the new year. This Halloween fire supplied light and rekindled the home fire.
That night, the woman of the home prepared a special feast for her family. Usually, this would include Colcannon and Barmbrack. Colcannon is a dish of mashed boiled potatoes mixed with green cabbage and chopped raw onion. After seasoning, a hollow is made in the center and butter is placed inside to melt. The custom is then to dip a spoonful of the potato into the butter before eating.
Barmbrack is a fruit loaf that contains objects that hold a certain symbolism for the one who finds them. This could include a wedding ring, signifying marriage within a year, a coin for impending riches, a thimble for spinsterhood and a pea for poverty. Autumn favorites like apples and hazelnuts were also served.
Games were also prevalent and included matchmaking and fortune telling. One popular game had unmarried individuals tie an apple on a string and spin it in front of a fire. The person whose apple fell off first would marry first; those whose apple didn’t fall off would die unmarried. It was also believed that if an apple was peeled in a long strip and the peeling thrown over his/her left shoulder, the shape would form the initial of the future spouse. Another of these games involved placing an Ivy leaf in cold water. If it had no imperfections the following morning, that person would have a year of good health, but look out if this wasn’t the case! Bobbing for apples was (and is still) a very popular game.
Another bit of Halloween history involved Jack O’Lantern, a nasty blacksmith who was doomed to walk the Earth forever with only a hollowed-out turnip with a burning ember inside to light his way. The Irish would hollow out turnips and carve faces, then place them on their doorsteps and in their windows to ward off evil spirits. In the United States, we use pumpkins because Irish emigrants used them in place of turnips after finding that turnips were hard to come by in this new world.
Because they believed that the dead were closest to the living on Halloween night, Druids dressed up in costumes to avoid being captured by roaming ghosts and evil spirits. By dressing up as members of the spirit world, they believed they could throw their pursuers off the trail. If an evil spirit succeeded in capturing a poor soul, it was believed that you must throw the dust from under your feet at it to gain the person’s release.
For further protection (especially against fairies), food was left out for their pleasure and holy water was often sprinkled on animals. The family would also make a special cross called a Parshell. This cross was hung over the door on the inside of the home to protect the family from all bad luck and evil until next Halloween.
Celebrate Halloween with an Irish Twist
Of course Ireland is no different from America in that commercialism has influenced their Halloween celebrations. However, some old customs have still been preserved and you can follow them as well! Pick which traditions will work best for your family. You can attempt them all in one day or spread them out over a couple days. Either way, it will be a fun way to celebrate Halloween and your heritage!
* First, you can continue to dress up in costumes, but perhaps consider more traditional fare? Witches, fairies, ghosts and goblins are and always will be popular choices.
* To celebrate the coming new year and end of the summer, light a fire in your fireplace if you have one, or plan a family trip to a pumpkin patch or camp ground that allows guests to light bonfires. Many pumpkin patches have land that guests can rent out for an evening. There, you could take part in two traditions: the lighting of the bonfire and the carving of the pumpkin! If you’re really daring, attempt to carve a turnip, but it is a more difficult undertaking.
* Sit down with the family to make a Parshell cross! This cross is traditionally made on October 31st and this tradition is one that mustn’t be broken! In order for it to be effective in protecting your home, it must be made on the 31st, not before or after!
Two sticks, each about seven inches long.
Tape or string to tie the sticks together.
Straw or similar plant material; A bag of rafia from a craft shop works well.
1) Fasten the two sticks together at right angles to form a cross.
2) Begin attaching strands of straw to the underside of one of the sticks at the center of the cross.
3) Moving clockwise, weave the straw over one stick and under the next, going around the cross. Stop before you get to the ends of the sticks- a few inches of stick should be exposed.
Your Parshell is now ready to be attached over your front door, on the inside to help protect against ill-luck, sickness and evil spirits until the next Halloween. After a new one is made, the old one is moved to another part of the house. According to tradition, upon taking down the old cross, you must say “Fonstarensheehy.” The meaning of this phrase is unknown.
* Celebrate by making a traditional Irish Halloween meal. Serve Colcannon and Barmbrack on Halloween evening before you go out Trick or Treating. Sample these recipes from Irish Culture and Customs.com.
Colcannon (Adapted from Darina Allen’s Festive Foods of Ireland cookbook)
2-2 1/2 lbs of floury potatoes
1 small head of green cabbage
1 cup milk
2 or more tablespoons chopped green onions
1/2 stick butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Scrub potatoes and leave skins on. Place in cold water with a generous pinch of salt, cover and bring to a boil.
2) When the potatoes are about half done, (about 15 minutes), strain off two-thirds of the water. Replace lid and place on a gentle heat and allow potatoes to steam until they are cooked.
3) Discard the dark, outer leaves of the cabbage. Wash the rest and cut into quarters; remove the core and cut finely across the grain. Cook in a little boiling salted water until soft. Drain, then season with salt and pepper and a little of the butter.
4) When the potatoes are cooked, put the milk into a saucepan with the green onions and bring to the boil. Pull the skins off the potatoes, mash quickly and beat in enough of the hot milk to make a fluffy purée.
5) Stir in the cooked cabbage and taste for seasoning.
6) Serve in a heated dish; make a well in the center and add the remaining butter.
Note: Don’t forget to put out a plateful of the dish with a lump of butter in the center for the fairies and the ghosts on Halloween night!
Barmbrack (From Aideen–Contributer to Irish Culture and Customs.com)
1 lb flour
6 oz sugar
1 lb mixed dried fruit
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp all spice/mixed spice
Pot of hot Irish tea
The ‘Lucky’ Ingredients (mixed into the bread for the consumers to find!)
– a ‘gold’ ring, to foretell marriage within a year
– a small coin, to forecast wealth
– a small piece of cloth to forecast poverty
– a thimble to forecast spinsterhood
– a button to forecast bachelorhood
1) Wrap each ‘lucky’ item carefully in greaseproof and/or tissue paper.
2) The trick to making a Barmbrack is the soaking of fruit overnight in the tea. While this makes the dried fruit softer and more appealing in general, one must be careful when mixing the dough not to over-knead or the rehydrated fruit will break too much. Add the sugar and egg to the fruit mix the next day.
3) Sift in the remaining dry ingredients. Mix gently. Stir in the wrapped ‘lucky’ items and try to distribute them evenly. Use a 7″ round baking tin at 350°F for 80 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
The Barmbrack can be made up to a week in advance and stored in an air-tight container. It is traditional that only he/she who has baked the cake should cut and serve the slices, as only he/she may know where the ‘lucky’ items are and will distribute them equitably!
Bridget Haggerty, An Irish Halloween Part 1 and 2, Irish Culture and Customs.com
Brendan Sharkie, How the Irish Invented Hallowe’en, Irish Culture and Customs.com
Barmbrack Recipe, Irish Culture and Customs.com
Colcannon Recipe, Irish Culture and Customs.com
Bridget Haggerty, Protect Your Property and Yourself – Make a Parshell!, Irish Culture and Customs.com