The most traditional food for the holiday is the one seasonal – apples, pumpkin, cabbage, potatoes and all root vegetables, all kinds of nuts, parsley, sloes. Nowadays many special cakes, biscuits and sweets are made for the children, decorated in the shapes of ghosts and other scary creatures, bones, pumpkins etc.
In old Scottish traditions people made black bread and oatcakes, adding animals’ blood instead of water into the dough.
A traditional divination cake was made by unmarried girls in the Isle of Man, called Dumb Cake. It was supposed to be eaten in absolute silence, before going to bed, in the hope to see future spouse in a dream.
In Ireland there is a traditional Barmbrack - a yeasted bread with sultanas and raisins. The Halloween Brack traditionally contains several objects baked inside, which foretell the future to the one who finds them inside his peace of Barmbrack. For example: a pea means that the person would not marry within the year; while a ring is for marriage; a stick has the meaning of continuous quarrels in the family; a piece of cloth is for bad luck; a coin – for good fortune. Today the traditional Barmbrack, apart from the raisins, can contain different dried fruit and spices.
Recipe of the Irish Barmbrack
- 450 g mixed dried fruit
- 350 g flour, mixed with baking powder and a pinch of salt
- 2-3 g mixed spice for sweets
- 250 ml cold black tea
- 170 g brown sugar
- 2 eggs
Soak the fruit overnight in the tea. Sieve the flour, add sugar, spice, tea and fruit, then eggs, stirring well to mix. Turn into a well greased loaf tin and bake in a moderate oven at 180°C for 1-1,5 hours.
(the recipe is taken from the book “Pagan feasts” by Anna Franklin and Sue Phillips)
Apples are the symbols of the feast in many countries. By Celtic beliefs, apples are associated with magic, life and death, changes and rebirth, by different points. Cut in half crossways, an apple shows a five pointed star, symbolizing immortality. Being a sacred number for the Celts, five was used in many combinations, including five stations in the year – spring, summer, autumn, winter and the time of sun rebirth and transitioning. Also the apple tree was seen in five stations such as birth, initiation, consummation, repose and death. The Irish used apples to make cakes and cider for the feast, peasants used to leave a couple of apples on the ground to keep wondering spirits in good mood. The apples have been widely used on Halloween for divination rituals.
From the middle 20th century caramel and toffee apples became a popular treat on Halloween and other autumn festivals. The small apples on the wooden sticks are dipped into hot caramel, which afterwards cools down and becomes a hard coat. The tradition of dipping apples in melted caramel, probably, goes back to the late 1800s, and in the 1900s the treat is supposed to spread as the feast autumn treat, starting from America. Today there are many varieties of the coating, like coloured caramel and candy coating (or toffee, which is a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, water, cinnamon and food colourant). As a variant, the apples can be dipped into the chopped nuts after caramel.
Activities – magic and entertainment
Throughout the centuries the magical aspect of the Halloween night was highly respected, and special collective and individual rituals were performed, to protect from the wondering spirits and supernatural creatures, and to use the opportunity of this magical time revealing future. People used to avoid churchyards, cemeteries, stiles and crossroads, where the spirits gathered. After the sunset they didn’t go out alone, switched off the lights in the house and used masks and costumes to keep the spirits far from the house.
The most spread rituals and divination forms are those predicting the deaths in the coming year, or the future spouse.
In Ireland Halloween night was one of the several nights in the year for church porch watching. People would sit all night on the church porch to see the apparitions of those who were going to die within the year.
In Scotland people put the stones near the fireplace before going to bed. They believed, the one whose stone was moved during the night was to die within the year. The similar tradition people had in Wales – everyone threw a stone, with his name carved on it, into the big festival bonfire. When the fire went off, they caught back their stones. The ones missing meant the death of their owners.
In the Isle of Man people smoothed out the fire ashes on the hearth before the night, and checked it in the morning. If there was a footprint on the ashes, pointing towards the door, one of the family would die within the year, if it was pointed inward, a child would be born in the house.
The Scottish tradition of the marriage divination was to carve an apple in one long strip, and then toss the peel over the shoulder. When the peel falls on the ground, its shape is believed to form the initial letter of the future spouse’s name. Unmarried women used to sit in the darkness on the Halloween night in front of a mirror, waiting for the face of their future spouse appear in it. In the Isle of Man there was a ritual to steal a salty herring from a neighbor, roast it and eat it in silence before going to bed. The future husband would appear in a dream, offering a drink of water.
From the British Isles come traditions of divinations through the certain objects baked into the feast cakes. The examples of such objects are given in the upper section “Food”.
In the beginning of the 1900s the fortune-telling on walnut shells was spread in some countries. People would write fortunes on white paper, using milk as ink. The paper was dried, folded and placed in walnut shells, which were distributed among all. Then the shells were warmed, and the “milky” writing would appear brown the papers. Another form of divination was the game called “fortune teller”. Different symbols were cut out of paper and placed on a platter (examples of such symbols are dollar sign, clothespin, rice, 4-leaf clover, ring etc). The room was darkened, and one would enter, put his hand on a piece of ice first, then lay it on the platter. His fortune would stick to the hand.
Perhaps, the most popular Halloween game today is bobbing for apples, in which contestants try to catch apples from a tub of water with only mouth. The roots of this game lay in the Roman times, when two ancient traditions were united – Roman apple-tree as a symbol of the goddess of fruit trees Pomona, and Celtic belief in pentagram as a symbol of fertility (the apple cut in half shows the pentagram shape). So they started to use apples to foretell marriages. With time the tradition developed into a divination game, when young unmarried people would try to catch the apple floating in water or hanging on a string. They believed the first person to succeed would be the first to marry within a year. In some countries the girl places the bobbed apple under her pillow, and is believed to see her future husband in the dream.
Halloween night is absolutely special for the witches, being the time for various forms of divinations, like foretelling future, reading magical symbols and tarot. The traditional celebration of the witches is held after midnight – the circle of Sabbath.
Image: "The Great He-Goat Or Witches Sabbath" by Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746-1828).
In modern times, with the commercialization of the feast, it got more entertaining character, and divination was transformed into the popular party games, while mass-media added such activities as telling scary stories, visiting haunted attractions and watching horror films. The apple bobbing, with its divine origin and vital meaning, has been transformed into a joyful "apple dunking”, adapted for children in several variants, where they contest for winning a prize.
In the image below the "Snap-Apple Night", an artwork painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1811-1870) in 1833, and inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832.
Source: Daniel Maclise [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons