Samhain, literally meaning summer’s end, is one of the four quarter-days of the celtic calendar. Imbolc (St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st) is the start of Spring. Bealtaine (May 1st) is the start of Summer and Lughnasa (August 1st) is the start of Harvest.
The Celts, it seems, liked to work from Dark towards Light and so Oiche Shamhna, Halloween Night, marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. At this in-between juncture Pookas, Banshees and Fairies might all make an appearance and it was generally considered wise to stay indoors and make some sort of offering to the spirit world.
When I was a child, Halloween meant a black refuse sack pulled over your head and a 20p mask from the sweet shop that you licked your sweat off as you walked over to the neighbours who might, only might, give you an apple and a few monkey nuts.
We always called to my Granny’s house where Grandad was, for one night only, put in charge. He had a long list of activities which amounted to something resembling a Halloween boot camp. With our hands tied behind our backs, we lunged at hanging apples. We bobbed for coppers at the bottom of Granny’s basin. Grandad would put a glace cherry on top of a pile of flour and we would take turns to scoop away the flour without toppling the cherry. He taught us how to pretend the end of our index finger had been chopped off. He would tap on a left shoulder while muttering boo at the right. He was good at all that stuff. When we were small, and we still let him, he was really good at making us laugh.
The centre piece of Halloween was, and still is, the Barm Brack. I’ve tried making my own but, somehow, it’s the cheap shop-bought one which is the tradition. It’s a very dry, open textured, fruit bread which needs a good slathering of butter. The shop ones have a gold ring inside and whoever gets the ring will be the next to marry.
If you can’t buy one and you want to make one there is a recipe here.
I can honestly tell you that I didn’t see a real pumpkin until I was well past the age for trick-or-treating. We knew of their existence and we wanted them but there was nothing for it but to take a long knife to a turnip.
E.T. changed everything. Steven Spielberg showed the children of Ireland what they got up to in America for Halloween and there was no going back.
My children will have all Grandad’s games, and fancy costumes and pumpkins and a frightening quantity of horrific sweets.
We’ve had two Barm Bracks already and I will squeeze another couple in next week. I’ve made the discovery that Barm Brack makes a terrific bread and butter pudding. I suppose that’s another deviation from the way things used to be but then, we make our own traditions, don’t we?
Barm Brack Bread And Butter Pudding.
1 Barm Brack, sliced and buttered.
350 mls milk (or milk and cream mixed)
2 Tablespoons brown sugar.