A night of wonder and magic
Today, three generations of my family decorated our house for Halloween. Together children, parents and grandparents unfolded ghoulish apparitions that dangle from the balcony lattice, draped the fence in cobwebs and orange-and-black tinsel, set headstones in the garden among the foxgloves and cosmos, and picked out two fat, round pumpkins ready for carving.
It was a funny old Saturday that started out grumpy but ended up - somewhere between the spiders and the bags of plastic bones - drawing us together. Festivals have the ability to do this, don’t they. I don’t worry about Halloween being commercial, after all, I get to choose how I celebrate. And I choose to decorate my house because it makes people smile: it made a bickering morning a happy afternoon, it sparked conversations with neighbours over the front fence, and it inspired passers-by to stop, remark, and smile.
And of course Halloween traditions run deep (as so many traditions do). Halloween’s history is at once darker, more complex and more beautiful than many of us realise. It was also a night that - if you cared to listen - could reveal your future and fortune.
This Halloween post, recipe and letter-writing prompts is an excerpt from the Meals in the Mail Home, Hearth & Harvest magazine last year.
Midnight has come and the great Christ Church bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night.
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right
Hundreds of years before Cadbury’s, Nestlé or Hershey’s, the 31st of October was a night for making, baking, and the telling of fortunes…
The festival we know as Halloween takes its date and most of its traditions from an infinitely older calendar celebration, Samhain, a Celtic festival marking the transition from summer to winter, and light to dark.
Samhain is what’s known as a “liminal” festival, a transitional time in which the normal order of the universe is suspended. This is the night when the boundaries between this world and the next are fluid and thinner... the souls of the dead are believed to walk the earth, creating a setting for supernatural encounters.
At the beginning of the Christian era in Britain, the practice of gathering around a bonfire for Samhain waned and, instead, night visitors began to venture from house to house. If luck was in their favour, they'd receive a delicious slice of barmbrack, or piping hot soul cakes.
Barmbrack (also spelled báirín breac) is a Celtic fruit-cake that was traditionally baked on Samhain. In a similar tradition to the coin in a Christmas pudding, people would hide non-edible items inside the barmbrack as a means of fortelling their futures.
Find a pea and you won’t marry this year
Find a stick and you’re in for an unhappy marriage or a year of disputes
Find a piece of cloth and bad luck will follow
Find a coin and you’ll known good fortune
Find a ring and there’ll be a wedding this year
Find a bean and your future won't bring money
Sweet biscuits (cookies) made with raisins, soul cakes were baked to give as gifts on Samhain Eve. But who they were given to depends on which particular tradition you’re exploring.
Some say the soul cakes were a terrible game of chance. The soul cakes were baked in the bonfire: everybody had to fish one out and if you got the burnt one, you won the grisly lottery of becoming the human sacrifice that would ensure good crops for the coming year.
Others say soul cakes were tossed around a specific area, to appease evil and hungry spirits who were condemned to wander in animal form.
By the 8th Century, they were given as gifts to beggers who moved from door to door on All Soul’s Eve (each cake given was equivalent to a soul saved).
They were handed out as gifts to “mummers,” costumed entertainers who - in complete silence - moved from door to door on Samhain and danced for each householder. Later, this practice became known as the familiar trick-or-treating that we know today.
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
~ Traditional folklore song, 1891
To appease their dead, many of the Celts (particularly in Scotland and Ireland) would host a “dumb supper” on Halloween, served in absolute silence. They’d gather together to eat, also setting a place at the head of the table for an ancestor.
No speaking: absolute silence is required
Do not look directly at the ancestor’s seat - to see the dead would bring misfortune
Afterwards, take the plate of uneaten food outside and leave it for the hungry ghosts and fairies
A remnant from an even older (Roman) tradition, apples were seen as the fruit of the Other World, and therefore were often used in magic and foretelling during Samhain.
Peel an apple all in one paring and throw it over your shoulder on Samhain Eve. The peeling will take the shape of the first initial of the person you will marry
Eat an apple in front of a mirror while combing your hair: at midnight, your true love's image will appear over your right shoulder
Fill a tub with water and dunk for apples. When you do this on Samhain Eve, anyone who manages to catch the apple in their teeth will have good fortune in the coming year
A kind of mashed potato with cabbage, colcannon also took on fortune telling properties during Samhain. Put the first and last spoonful of colcannon into your stocking, then hang it from a nail on the door. The first person to enter through that door will be your future husband.
(Part of the spell requires that you cannot speak from the moment you begin eating until the entire family has gone to bed. So it’s possible this particular “spell” was just a handy way of guaranteeing an evening of peace and quiet from teenaged daughters).
“Samhain was a way of marking that ambiguous moment when you didn’t know who you were about to become, or what the future would hold.
It was a celebration of limbo.”
~ Katherine May, Wintering
Kale, cabbages & leeks
Young people in Scotland would make their way blindfolded into the garden to pull up kale, cabbages or leeks. They’d “read” the vegetables for descriptive signs of their future spouse (tall and healthy, odd and lumpy, withered and ancient, and so on). The amount of soil clinging to the roots indicated the fortune or dowry the spouse would bring.
Melanie’s Recipe: traditional Barmbrack
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
375g dried fruit (I used 50/50 sour cherries and raisins)
250ml cold tea (French Earl Grey is my choice for its lovely floral notes, but use whatever tea you prefer)
50ml whiskey (optional but it does add a smoky depth to the mix)
125g soft brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp mixed spice (this blend of coriander, cassia, cinnamon,
nutmeg, allspice, ginger & cloves packs quite a punch; resist the urge to add more
Place the fruit into a bowl, brew your choice of tea (strain it if using loose leaf tea) and pour over the fruit along with the whiskey. Cover and leave to sit overnight, by which time the fruit will have plumped up and absorbed a large proportion of the liquid. When ready to make the batter, strain the fruit and retain the leftover soaking liquid as this will provide liquid for the mixture.
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius and grease and line a 900-gram loaf tin (I used a premade liner for convenience).
Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and mixed spice in a mixing bowl.
Spoon the wet dough into the lined tin, place in the middle of the oven and bake for one hour until a rich golden brown (your kitchen will smell amazing…)
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Once cooled, wrap in cling film and foil and allow the barmbrack to rest for two or three days before cutting and serving; this is possibly the hardest part of this recipe as the fragrance is so enticing, well worth it as the flavour will be even more enhanced.
Naomi’s Samhain letter-writing prompts
Samhain was a liminal festival, a celebration of transition and change. Transition from summer to winter, from light to dark, from harvest to rest, and from adolescence to adulthood.
Change can be both invigorating and frightening, and Samhain is a lovely reminder to be mindful of and show some love to anyone who is going through a period of transition. Who could you write to?
A student who is starting a new grade at school or university
A loved one who is moving house / city / country
A friend who is starting a new job, or has taken a promotion
Anyone going through a relationship break-up
Someone who's starting up a new business or creative venture
A friend on the eve of their wedding
Someone who is travelling for the first time in a long time
A friend who is about to become a parent for the first time
(A child who is about to become a sibling for the first time!)
Your former self, at a time when you felt vulnerable or afraid