Halloween and is origins remain a bit of a mystery. Opinions vary but mostly the Celts are given credit for establishing the festival. Originally marking the end of the year, Samhain was a pagan festival marking the onset of winter and hard times. Winter used to be an uncertain time, the short dark days frightening, and representing death for many. Food was vastly more important to people then than it is now. In such days if you had not stored your harvest for the winter by this time, it was likely you would not survive until spring. This crossing over period also applied to the worlds of the living and the dead. Spirits of the departed were supposed to walk free at this time. Similar festivals can be found in other parts of the world.
Rather than ban pagan festivals, the early Christians absorbed them into their calendar and adapted them as necessary. Thus Samhain (still the Irish word for November) became the feast of All Hallows, a celebration of the saints and martyrs. This was followed by All Souls when the souls of the dead were prayed for, so everyone was accounted for. The day before, All Hallows Eve, quickly got shortened to Halloween.
The bonfires of Halloween were intended to ward off evil spirits and disguises were supposed to confuse them. Nowadays we don’t worry so much about the dark or the evil spirits but we love the bonfires, dressing up and other traditions like bobbing for apples and eating barmbrack. Originally fermented with barm, or ale yeast, barmbrack is a sweet yeast bread, normally filled with dried fruit, mixed peel and spices.
Different objects, all which had significance, were concealed within the brack. They ranged from pieces of cloth to coins, a pea and of course a ring. The last is the only one that has really survived and remains a favourite. Having the slice that contained the ring meant you would be married within the year. A shared ritual that everyone in a family could enjoy, it remains popular to this day, particularly in Ireland. It annoys me that barmbrack is available all year, rather than being a special part of the Halloween holiday. I look forward to our fresh bracks – sweet yeast dough packed with dried fruit – a delicious breakfast for witches and wizards toasted and slathered in butter.