The Irish Roots of Halloween

Irish staples such as apples, turnips and potatoes have played an important role in the popularity of the American adoption of the
Celtic-inspired holiday known today as Halloween.

By Edythe Preet, Columnist
October / November 2001

Ask anyone to name five favorite holidays, and it’s a sure bet Halloween will be on the list. Then ask how the celebration came to be. More than likely you’ll be told Halloween means All Hallows Eve the night of prayer preceding the Feast of All Saints. Yes, but there’s more to it than that. The night we celebrate by dressing in outlandish costumes and traipsing about the neighborhood trick-or-treating actually began as a harvest ritual thousands of years ago in Celtic Ireland.

In these jet age days when summer fruits and vegetables can be zipped from Southern Hemisphere farms to mid-winter Northern Hemisphere tables, harvest time is a concept that has lost much of its significance. Such was not the case in prehistoric Ireland.

Bringing in and safely storing the fruits of summer was a vital matter that would determine whether one could survive the austere months when plants did not thrive, animals grew weak for lack of fodder, and all but the strongest members of a community might easily perish.

To comprehend the seriousness of the time, one must imagine a life stripped of all modern conveniences. Homes were not centrally heated or lit at the flick of a switch. Refrigerators did not exist. There were no stores. Getting from place to place required walking. The only clothing one possessed was that which could be fashioned from animal hides, fur, and the linen threads hard won from pounded flax stems. The common cold was a life-threatening illness as it could easily escalate into a fatal case of pneumonia.

Weather records were a thing for the far future, and there was no guarantee that warm temperatures would ever come again. In the midst of harvest plenty lurked the constant threat of starvation and death.

Full of fear, the Neolithic Irish did what early agricultural societies did all over the world: They prayed to their gods for deliverance. On the harvest season’s last full moon, Druid priests and priestesses conducted a three-day ceremony. It was called Samhain, and opposed the Beltane spring planting rites. Huge bonfires were lit to replicate the life-giving sun. People drove their precious animals between twin pillars of towering flames hoping they and their livestock would be purified of all ills. Weak animals were culled from the herds and sacrificed to beseech mercy from possibly ill-wishing deities. Everyone shared a rare feast of roasted meat and the leftovers were dried and put away to feed the community through the coming cold times.

Time passed. Things changed. Communities became larger. Agricultural methods improved. Christianity replaced worshiping the forces of nature. But the specter of starvation still stalked the land. And the three-day harvest festival remained.

Followers of the new faith doggedly attempted to eradicate the pagan tradition. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory the First decreed November 1st would be known as All Hallows, a day to honor all the saints. Two hundred years later, November 2nd was established as All Souls, a day to pray for the un-sainted departed. Still, the harvest festival lingered on. Finally, the Church mandated that the night of October 31st would be observed as a prayer vigil to prepare for the following holy days and named it All Hallows Eve. The phrase was eventually shortened to Hallowe’en (the last syllable a form of “eventide” — the hour when prayers began), and finally the word was abbreviated to simply Halloween. At last, a three-day period of fixed Christian holy days took precedence over the lunar celebration. Rome’s plan was good, but it was never totally successful.

Harvest was too vital an affair, and celebrating the event had become so ingrained in popular culture that people simply transferred their old ways to the new calendar dates. As the Irish migrated to other parts of the world, they carried the ancient traditions along with them. Despite the fact that one-third of Australia’s population is Irish, Halloween never took root Down Under because the seasons are reversed, but in America it has become one of the year’s favorite celebrations. And all of the night’s customs and iconography are Irish.

People masqueraded when out traveling to disguise themselves from creatures of the night. Trick-or-treating stems from “souling” when people went door to door collecting crisp “soul cakes.”

Made from a simple mix of ground oats, water and a bit of butter, each thin cracker a person gathered represented a prayer that would be said for the household’s dearly departed. Even the night’s colors of black and orange have Irish roots. Black symbolizes the fearful unknown, and orange represents the fires that burned on Celtic hillsides to ward off evil.

Since Halloween is essentially a harvest festival, it is the fruits of the season that figure most in the holiday’s traditions. Autumn is the time of year in Ireland when apples, nuts, potatoes, and turnips are in season. The first two foods successfully migrated to America. Bobbing for apples may now be simply a wet and wild entertainment, but it was once believed that whoever nabbed the first apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. The nuts that fill so many trick-or-treat bags were used for fortune telling. People tossed walnuts into smoldering hearth fires believing that whoever’s nut exploded first would soon be wed.

As one of the Emerald Isle’s most important food crops, potatoes take center stage at Irish Halloween celebrations. Supper would not be complete without a dish of colcannon – mashed potatoes laced with lots of creamy butter and mixed with simmered kale. Traditionally, a gold ring was hidden in the mound of fluffy whipped potato-kale mixture, and whoever found it would – you guessed it – be the first to marry.

Turnips may sound like an odd traditional vegetable until one learns that Irish turnips are huge. The Celtic term for Halloween is Feile Na Marbh, Feast of the Dead. It was the night when fearsome Ban Sidhe prowled about stealing unwary souls off to the land of the dead. People carved scary faces into hollowed-out huge turnips, fit them with candles, and set them by the door or carried them while out walking to scare away malevolent spirits.

In America, Irish immigrants found turnips much too small to use as anti-ghost devices. They substituted pumpkins for the task, and Jack-O-Lanterns have been a Halloween symbol ever since.

One tale of the Jack-O-Lantern has it that a man named Jack encountered the devil on All Hallows Eve and tricked the Dark One into promising that despite his many bad habits Jack would not end up in Hell after his death. Jack lived for many years, but when he finally died and knocked on Heaven’s door he was refused entry because he had led such a profligate life. Then Jack went down to Hell and told the Devil he had come to surrender his soul after all. But Satan remembered his promise. Barring him from the eternal fire, the Devil plucked a glowing coal from Hell’s floor and tossed it to Jack, who placed the ember inside a hollowed-out turnip, which he has used ever since to light his way on his eternal earthbound wander.

The moral to this story? It’s better to live a good life and never try to outsmart the Devil or you may outsmart yourself in the end. Sláinte!


Apple Dumpling

This is an ancient recipe and the amounts are appropriate.
One 15 x 15-inch square of unbleached muslin
1 bowl full of warm mashed unseasoned potatoes
2 ounces melted butter
Pinch of ground ginger
Enough flour to make a paste
4 to 6 medium apples, peeled and cut into small pieces
3 whole cloves
2 cups of sugar

Prepare the muslin cloth by boiling it for 10 minutes, then wring it out damp and dredge it thickly with flour. This prevents water from seeping into the pudding as it cooks. Have a large pot of water boiling and put a heavy plate in the pot to hold the pudding. To make the pastry, coat a cutting board with flour and place the mashed potatoes on it. Sprinkle the potatoes with ground ginger and salt and pour the melted butter all over.

Over this sift some flour and work it in with your hands, adding more flour as needed until the mixture forms a dough that can be rolled out. Don’t add too much flour or work the dough too long or the pastry will be tough. Roll the dough into a 15-inch circle and place it on the floured cloth. Put the sliced apples, cloves, sugar and a gold ring wrapped in greaseproof paper in the center. Dampen the edges of the pastry, lift it around the apples and press it closed, sealing well. Gather the cloth like a bag around the dumpling and tie it securely with cooking twine, leaving a long removal loop.

Carefully lower the dumpling sack into the pot of boiling water until it rests on the plate, making sure the dumpling is completely covered by water. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Boil for 1 to 2 hours, adding more boiling water as needed to compensate for evaporation. Lift the dumpling from the water by the string loop and drain in a colander for a few minutes, then untie the cloth and open the sack. Invert a warm plate over the colander, turn the dumpling out and carefully peel back the cloth. Serve in wedges. Whoever gets the ring will be the next to marry. Makes 4 to 6 servings

(The Cooking Woman: Irish Country Recipes –– Florence Irwin) ♦

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