Happy Halloween! What are you doing today to mark All Hallows’ Eve? Are you dressing up in a goulish costume? Carving a pumpkin? Taking children to trick or treat? I wonder – how much do you know about why we do these things? Here’s some background on Halloween customs and their legendary origins:
Jack-o’-lanterns: When Jack, a drunken farmer, met the Devil one night, he managed to trap him. Before releasing him, he made a deal with the Devil: the Devil could never claim his soul. Jack sailed off and enjoyed a life of sin and debauchery, safe in the knowledge that he would not end up in hell. But when he died, he was barred from heaven for his earthly misdeeds, and trapped in limbo. The Devil would not accept him in hell, either, and simply threw a burning coal at him. Jack put the coal in a turnip, hollowed out, and used it as a lantern to guide his lost soul. Jack-o’-lanterns are traditionally carved with frightening expressions to scare away evil spirits.
- Trick or treating: In medieval times, poor people went souling on All Soul’s Day– they would knock on doors and be given soul cakes (see the recipe further down) in return for prayers for the dead. This custom began in Ireland and Britain, but also took place in Italy, and in Scotland a variant sprang up: guising, in which the people visiting houses wore costumes and were rewarded with cakes, fruit and money. It wasn’t until the 1930s in America that the ‘trick’ element came to be.
- Apple bobbing: A game we’ve come to associate with Halloween likely because of the autumnal timing, which calls to mind an apple harvest, and also because traditionally Christians abstained from meat on All Hallows’ Eve. But in fact the game dates back to Roman times, and relates to love – apparently, the first person to bite the apple will be the next to marry, and girls who place the apple they bit into under their pillow will dream of their husband-to-be. Other Halloween games also relate to love. If a woman carves an apple in one strip and then throws it over her shoulder, the peel apparently spells the initial of their future love’s name. And on Halloween, so legend tells, if you stare into a mirror for long enough you’ll see your future husband, or if you’re destined to die before you marry, you’ll see a skull. (For more Halloween games and their legends, take a look at Robert Burns’ classic poem ‘Halloween’, which he annotates with explanations: http://poetry.about.com/library/weekly/blburnshalloween.htm.)
- Bonfires: These are especially important in the Irish Halloween, but in Britain they’re saved for Bonfire Night on 5 November and used to commemorate the survival of King James I when the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes and others failed.
Americans undoubtedly celebrate Halloween the most, and their enthusiasm is spreading worldwide, largely due to shops stocking large amounts of Halloween paraphernalia. In Italy, where my latest novel The Echoes of Love is set, Halloween custom is rooted in remembering the dead. Families traditionally leave a meal out for the spirits of their deceased relatives while attending church, and souling has taken place since the 15th century.
Why not take part in the more traditional souling instead of trick or treating this year? All you need to do so is some delicious soul cakes that you can offer visitors as alms. Here’s a very simple, classic recipe I adapted from several soul cake recipes.
175g caster sugar
450g plain flour
100g currants or raisins
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon mixed spice
2 tsp of milk (or for a tang, apple cider vinegar)
- Pre-heat oven: 180C/375F/Gas mark 5.
- Mix together the butter and sugar.
- Beat in the egg.
- Sift the flour with the spices and add to the mixture.
- Add the currants/raisins and a littleliquid (milk or vinegar)and mix to form a soft dough.
- Roll out the dough to about 1cm thick and use a cookie cutter to make cakes.
- Use a blunt knife to indent a cross on each cake if you want to be truly traditional, and then transfer to a lined baking tray.
- Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden.
- Cool a little and enjoy!
You can add a little ginger too, if you like – the spicier, the better!