The ancient celebration of Samhain (from the Celtic language, pronounced 'Sowen' or 'Sowain' -- long 'o' --and not 'SAM-HAIN') comes from their custom of celebrating those they have lost over the years, essentially a festival and honoring of the dead. Thus the custom of dressing as scary spirits and the dead came about (I still stay true to this and will only dress as the dead in honour of the holiday, okay maybe the undead too.) Later when the Pagans and indigenous people of the Celtic isles were reluctantly absorbed into the mainstream Christian religions the Christians couldn't stop them from celebrating their beloved holiday and thus made the day a holy day; the Feast of All Souls Day. The Feast of All Saints Day was marked on the 1 November to try to downplay the previous nights activities, and gave the saints without their special day a day of honour.
Ancient Celts didn't have the pumpkins we associate with Halloween, those came from the "New World" and were incorporated when the settlers came to the US. What they used were turnips! The turnips were cut into scary faces and set outside the home to scare away any evil spirits, hence the spooky faces. Similar to the idea of placing gargoyles on buildings to protect them from bad influences. Children did go door to door, asking for money and cakes. These cakes were made specially for the occasion and were called "soul cakes", lanterns were made from the turnips to help light the way.
Aside from it being one of the most important holidays of the Celtic calendar -- this was the mark of the Celtic New Year, the last harvest and the start of winter -- this was also the time of year when the Celts believed the veil between the living and dead was very thin making contact with those gone before very easy. This is where our Halloween traditions of divination became passed down to this very day. If you're even the slightest bit in tune with your psychic side, this time of year you will notice all sorts interesting "phenomenon". Things like the smell of a grandmother's cooking suddenly wafting by, or feeling as if one of your beloved pets that's passed on is cuddling next to you. If you're really in tune, the noise can get pretty overwhelming, and its sometimes hard to tell if its psychic phenomena or the real thing (ask my husband, our house ghost was really active the other night and I was yelling at him to call 911 because I swore someone was in the house, then felt the total dolt when I realised what it really was, I nearly gave my poor husband a heart attack!)
This was also one of the Celts' major fire festivals. Fire was a means to keep bad spirits away, and attract good spirits that may need help on their journey. This is another tradition held forth today, with fire lanterns and candles being burnt in homes around the US.
The Roman influence on Samhain came from the addition of their celebration of the Goddess Pomona, a goddess of fruits and seeds, thus incorporating bobbing for apples to this very day! Did you know if you cut an apple sideways the pits create a five pointed star? Also a Pagan symbol which erroneously has become synonymous with evil. Bah, the only evil is what people create!
It wasn't until the 19th century with the influx of immigrants to America that Halloween tradition began to filter over to the new world. By the 1920s, many traditions had been solidly set in place here, with the heyday in the 1950s mostly for children. It wasn't until more recent times adults decided to join in on the fun as well going all out with their costumes and attending various costume balls. According to retail sales figures Halloween is only second to the Christmas/ Winter holiday season!
If you want to add a little traditional flair to your Halloween celebration why not make some soul cakes to serve at your Halloween party?
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Soul cakes get stale within a day or two, so eat 'em while they're hot.
Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon salt
Generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup currants
For the Glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork.
Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.
One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup.
Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently.
Decorate the soul cakes with currants and then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny. Serve warm, with cold pumpkin juice.
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