Irish History: Volume XII
A Samhain Feast!
Last year, we covered the Irish holiday of Samhain is great detail (check out these posts if you want to know more!) But, to sum it up—the origins of modern-day Halloween can be traced back to the Irish Pagan tradition of Samhain (pronounced sow-inn,) an ancient fire festival marking the beginning of the “dark half of the year.” Druidic priests would build a large communal bonfire, and, as it was believed that the veil between our world and the “otherworld” was thin on this night, costumes and treats became part of the celebration (to trick bad spirits and feed good ones!)
But, after the fire and turnip jack-o’-lanterns, what was the most important Samhain tradition? A feast, of course! Pretty much all festivals in ancient Ireland included a feast, but the Samhain feast was special and almost like our modern, American Thanksgiving—it was a time to come together as a family and a community before the harder, leaner months of winter. With the last of harvest upon the table, it was a time to take stock and celebrate before minds turned toward survival. In honor of this ancient tradition, we thought we’d clue you in to some of Ireland’s delicacies (both old and new, and with recipes!) so you can have your own Samhain feast at home this year if you wish!
First off, the carbs! As you might assume for such a spooky holiday, there’s quite a few ghostly and fortune-telling traditions revolving around foods eaten on Samhain, and the traditions of eating soul cakes, bannocks, and barmbrack are no exception. Soul cakes are a bit like a shortbread cookie made with sweet spices (and often dried fruit,) but they have a very important job to do: you leave soul cakes out for any hungry spirits (or hungry guests) that may pay your home a visit on Halloween night. Bannocks—a term which covers a dearth of large, round quick breads—were once eaten year-round in Ireland (though aren’t quite as popular now,) but some Samhain-exclusive recipes have the addition of extra salt. Legend has it that if an unmarried lad or lass was to take three bites of a salty bannock on Samhain Eve and then go to bed without speaking (or drinking!) they’d have a dream of their future spouse. Lastly, barmbrack, a sweet bread filled with tea-soaked fruits, was often baked with trinkets inside. Each trinket had a meaning for those whose slice included it, meant to tell of your future—a button means you’ll remain a bachelor, a silver coin for those destined for riches, etc.
Lastly, what about a main course? While traditionally there wasn’t much meat served for Samhain (it being the end of the harvest and all,) the closest to tradition one could get would be some kind of meat pie, stew, or sausage (delightfully nicknamed bangers—as they were prone to explode during the lean war years when they had to use water as filler!) Here’s a recipe for a Guinness and steak pie, or a lamb stew—it’s all about something warm and hearty on a cold Halloween night! But it wouldn’t be an Irish meal without potatoes (it may sound like a stereotype, but these root vegetables are known to last through the long, cold winter—stereotypes do come from somewhere.) You can try out the beloved (to this day) Irish side of colcannon, essentially mashed potatoes with cabbage, kale, or anything green snuck in! Or how about boxty—more or less a potato pancake? Purists can go for champ, which is essentially mashed potatoes with scallions, or fadge, a kind of potato bread…there’s truly no end to potato recipes in Ireland!
No matter what you eat to celebrate Samhain this year—candy and toffee apples or barmbrack and boxty—you’re taking part in an ancient tradition of warding off the darkest part of the year just a little bit longer through celebration. So gather your family together at your table, light a roaring fire, and dig in! The spirits from the other side of the veil have some soul cakes to finish off.
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the many invaders of Ireland, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Then, you have to have something to drink (though this particular tradition is for the adults, not our dancers!) Mulled wine is traditional all winter throughout the UK, Europe, and Ireland, and nothing smells more delicious than a pot of mulled wine bubbling away on your stove! While spices were precious in ancient Ireland, as it was and is an island (probably where that bland food reputation stems from,) mulled wine’s origins can be traced back to 20 A.D.! While we tend to associate Guinness with Ireland (though it’s technically more popular in Nigeria!), there’s a winter spirit with an even longer tradition--poteen. Also called poitín, it’s essentially Irish moonshine, and was similarly made illicitly, hidden away in a pot from whence it gets its name (it also may be the original whiskey, as it was once generally made with a malt barley as its base.)
Don’t worry, the dancers can have something sweet while the adults are imbibing. How about a traditional apple cake or tea cake? It turns out apples and dried fruits are traditional for an Irish Autumn, just like here! In fact, traditional Halloween activities (that don’t get much play anymore) like bobbing for apples originated in Ireland—though the original version had an apple dangling from a string with contestants trying to take a bite out of it!
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