All Hallows Eve


Halloween will come will come
Spells be set a going
Fairies at full speed will run
Avoid the road and roamin’
(adapted from South Uist Scotland)

early Irish Jack o lantern
Ancient jack o’ lantern photo courtesy of Museum of County Cork

Neighborhood houses are bedecked in orange lights, wispy “spider webs” spin from tree to bush and jack o’ lanterns are found scattered on porches and stairs. All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween as we commonly know, is creeping up on the October calendar. Halloween has roots in Samhain, pronounced sah-win, a Celtic festival which can be traced back in old Irish literature to the 10th century.

Samhain was the twin festival to Beltane (or May Day) and represented the close of the year. The Celts believed (as did many other peoples) that at certain times of the year the boundary between living and dead was at its thinnest. The dead could walk amongst us or at least see, hear, and partake of the feasts of the living, hence the traditions of leaving gifts of food, drink and tobacco on graves. The living too could see and hear the mysteries of the dark side and so could both touch the “good” of the other side through divination.

At Beltane, however, humans were seen as more at risk of interception by fairies and malevolent spirits. In some places, this drove people to stay indoors or at least close to home. In other places, mumming or guising were part of Samhain as disguises could keep you safe.

In Ireland, “costumes were sometimes worn by those who went about before nightfall collecting for a Samhain feast. In parts of southern Ireland during the 19th century, the guisers included a hobby horse known as the Láir Bhán (white mare). A man covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull (representing the Láir Bhán) would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from farm to farm. At each they recited verses and the farmer was expected to donate food. If the farmer donated food he could expect good fortune; not doing so would bring misfortune.” (Quoted from

Another specific Irish custom is the Barmbrack (recipe below) which traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread, somewhat like the New Orleans King Cake. Four or so charms would be stirred into the batter – a piece of cloth, a penny, a ring and a pea – each representing a “fortune”. See if you can figure out what future each represented.*

Bonfires, and yes, jack o’ lanterns also figure into the Celtic or Irish celebrations. Jack o’ lanterns in particular are thought to have a distinctively Irish origin. The custom may have its roots in the warding off of malicious forces which would shy away from “light” while the souls of the dead would be attracted by the reminder of home and hearth. But jack o’ lanterns did not start out as carved pumpkins since pumpkins came from the New World. Originally, people carved turnips or beets into lanterns.

The origin story of “Jack of the lantern” concerns an Irish blacksmith, naturally named Jack, who bested the Devil and in return asked that his soul never been taken. Unfortunately, he led a less than exemplary life and could not get into heaven either. Condemned to haunt the earth, he was given a burning ember which he carried in a hollowed out turnip, searching for eternal rest. Jack o’ lanterns then morphed into a way to protect a home from the spirits (and Jack) wandering on All Hallows eve.**

Halloween is on the weekend this year. Perhaps there will be some dancing down of the sun as we turn into the dark time of the year.

Trick and Treat

Linda G.


Irish Barmbrack (from Saveur)

2 cups black tea, cooled
34 cup raisins
12 cup dried currants, cranberries, or cherries
2 tbsp. each candied lemon and orange peel, minced
2 cups flour, plus more
14 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
14 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
14 tsp. ground cloves
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted, plus more
14 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
Assorted charms, wrapped individually in parchment paper
13 cup honey, warmed


Stir tea, raisins, currants, candied lemon and orange peel in a bowl; cover with plastic wrap and let sit 2 hours, then drain and set aside. Heat oven to 325°. Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in a bowl; make a well in the center. Mix reserved fruit, the butter, milk, and egg in a bowl and add to well; stir until a wet dough forms. Press dough into a greased 8″ cake pan and push charms into dough. Bake until firm, 35–40 minutes. Brush with honey; bake 2 minutes more. Let cool slightly; serve with butter, if you like.

*Piece of cloth – your wealth shall neither increase nor decrease

A penny – your fortune shall increase

A ring- you shall wed within the year

Pea – you will not marry this year


Another defensive mechanism was to carry a spring of rowan or ash tree as a protective amulet or attach a branch or sprig of rowan to the door lintel during the days around Samhain.

The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996),
Circle Round. Starhawk, Diane Baker, Anne Hill