Traditional Halloween Food
Traditional Halloween food is much in vogue these days. Not surprising, really, considering Halloween’s meteoric rise in recent times. Eagerly trying to discover the true significance of this global holiday, many of the curious are now looking deep into its pagan origins.
And finding there a great many Irish food traditions.
Held to mark the autumn harvest, what is now known as Halloween globally was for the Celts a major Celtic festival taking place at the end of October: Samhain. And for the Celts of Ireland, the Samhain ritual also marked year’s end. It was the time when the barrier between the world of the living and that of the dead was thinnest. On Samhain night, instead of trick-or-treaters, the ghosts of the deceased would visit their old homes, and mayhem caused by mischievous spirits brought curses and turmoil to the ancient world.
Their homeland ravished by repression and famine, nineteenth-century Irish immigrants, heading for North America in their droves, brought with them this little piece of the old country. Their hallowed Celtic festival, which would become the Halloween we know today. And their Irish food traditions came along, too.
These included special Traditional Halloween food prepared in silence, then left out to feed the spirits of winter – and any other ghouls that may be passing through. Or cakes that allowed you to tell the future, like the (in)famous Irish tea cake.
Samhain was about looking to the past, being thankful for what you had been given. Whilst showing respect both to the gods of the other world and those from your own community whom had passed on. Pagan rituals were performed and homage paid. But the feast also symbolized hope for the future.
You combined this respect for past and future by eating, drinking and making merry in the present. Lest the gods deem you ungrateful!
Traditional Halloween Food at Irish Buzz
Traditional Halloween food of course feature heavily on our site, as Irishbuzz.com is dedicated solely to Irish food and drink. But alongside the recipes shines the historical setting of the ancient ritual that would become Halloween, and the untapped sea of Irish food traditions once thought buried in the clutches of time. This is important, as real appreciation for the sacred Traditional Halloween food involves seeing them through the lens of the Celtic world.
They were food, but they were ritual food. Breads and dishes that took on a heavier significance during the festival, becoming sacred, pagan symbols that helped you perform your devout Samhain rituals.
The bannock bread baked for Samhain is a good example of this.
Usually made from oats, bannocks are traditional quick bread made for a particular occasion or function. The Celtic calendar marked the passing of the seasons through four major festivals, and a special bannock bread was prepared for each. The ingredients of these bannocks generally reflected what was available at that particular time of year. With Lúnasa, the main harvest festival held in early August, seeing the most luxurious bannock recipe. Plenty of dried fruit and nuts.
Made as autumn leaves fell all around, on the cusp of winter, Samhain bannocks were plain in comparison. And the simple recipe of oats, salt and butter may not grab the appetite of the modern diner. But that was the point, too. This Halloween bread was meant to be plain. It was part of the Samhain ritual, their simple nature allowing you space for reflection and heightening the other roles these bannocks played in proceedings.
Irish traditions varied by region, but Samhain bannocks were generally baked by unmarried girls, whom would prepare the Halloween bread in complete silence. Each girl would then either eat one of these salty scones in three bites before going straight to bed, or place a piece of the bannock bread under their pillow. As Halloween night passed, they would dream of their future husband, whom would surely come to quench their thirst with his undying love.
Bannocks were also the preferred ‘treats’ to be given to anyone calling to your home during Samhain. Celtic society generally insisted on showing hospitality – to not do so was to bring shame upon your house. But during the ancient Halloween ritual, this hospitality was to be all encompassing: each and every being must be welcome in your home.
Children or the poor came begging for bannock bread. Guisers dressed in garish costume might drop by to cause a bit of havoc. Or a disgruntled spirit may seize their chance to test your hospitality. All were to be offered their share. Even after you had gone to sleep: bannocks, and perhaps a glass of Ireland’s national drink, poitín, were left out for any spirits that still might wander in.
As the world’s leading ANTIblog, such Irish food traditions hold immense appeal for us, as our mission is not only to bring great recipes to our readers, but also to uplift and inspire them.
Both blogging and food are powerful tools for bringing people together. And discovering the history and cultural context of what we eat really can set you thinking. Not least about our shared humanity. Honoring all those humans that harvested, cooked and ate this very same food before us. And our place in this extensive human chain.
This is what lies at the heart of the ANTIblog concept. Getting people to think.
Not just clicking and consuming what they are told to, but really engaging with the wonder of the world. At Irish Buzz, delicious dishes like traditional Halloween food are waiting to be devoured. But these also act as gateways into a more playful, more fulfilling, and ultimately more human blogging experience. Just like Samhain dishes were a gateway to a deeper, spiritual understanding.
Irish food is not the most renowned of world cuisines, but it is seeing a great resurgence these days – and boasts several dishes that even the casual diner may know. The most famous perhaps being the truly traditional versions of Irish classics like beef stew on the stove or soda bread. Another well-known favourite is Irish tea cake, and this also happens to be an important Samhain recipe. What’s more, just like those salty bannocks baked for the Samhain ritual, this Irish cake also tells the future.
Seen as a traditional dessert, Irish tea cake is actually more sweet bread than cake, and should be made by soaking dried fruit in dark tea, then working these into the mix. This Halloween bread also receives a bit of extra pizzazz from spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, with a splash of Irish whiskey an optional addition.
Still eaten at Halloween in Ireland today, Irish tea cake was traditionally used by the Celts as a kind of fortunetelling parlor game. Symbolic trinkets were worked into the bread mix, some boding good fortune for the year ahead, others acting as warnings.
If you found a coin in your slice of cake, wealth was certainly to come your way. If you got the ring, wedding bells would happily sound out within the coming twelve months. But find the stick and you were sure to marry badly. Other possible verdicts included a piece of cloth (poverty), a pea (no marriage this year), a thimble (spinsterhood), and a medallion (religious vocation).
Irish Food Traditions?
Halloween in Ireland, specially the traditional, pagan side of the event is still a pretty big deal. But while (now age-old) novelties like parlor games and distinctively Halloween fun as captured in the Irish tea cake ritual are still among the most popular Irish food traditions, they’re usually not uniquely Irish, or Celtic even. In the case of the “Irish” tea cake, many Indo-European cultures have a similar tradition. Although this is admittedly more common in places where the Celts once roamed – Central Europe, parts of Anatolia, the Balkans..
In Serbia, for example, Christmas Day in many Eastern Orthodox families sees the baking of a coin into a loaf of bread and the head of the household then breaking the loaf into pieces. One piece for each person sitting at the table. Find the coin and you’ll enjoy good luck in the year ahead. But if the entire family is to see good fortune, the head of the household must first buy back the coin.
This does indeed sound similar to the Irish tradition. But we wonder whether the Slavs ever really played the game like the Celts did. Scholars suggest that the wholesome and harmless Irish tea cake game may have on occasion been used to decide who was to be ritually sacrificed!
Ingredients for Irish Tea Cake
[Makes one loaf of traditional Halloween bread/cake]
- 2 cups (350 g) Dried Fruits (raisins, currants and similar)
- 2 cups (500 ml) Black Tea (such as Irish breakfast tea)
- 14 oz (400 g) Strong Bread Flour
- 3 Tbsp (40 g) Caster Sugar
- ½ stick (70 g) Unsalted Butter
- 1 packet (¼ oz / 7 g) Dry Yeast
- 1 cup (250 ml) Milk
- 1 Egg
- Pinches of Cinnamon, Nutmeg, crushed Cloves, Salt
- 1 Ring, Coin, Pea, Stick, etc.
- An optional splash of Whiskey
Get the full recipe and baking directions in our Irish Baking section.
How to pronounce Samhain
How to pronounce Samhain is often challenging for non-Irish speakers. But the correct Samhain pronunciation is actually pretty simple: Sau-En. We suggest employing some Irish food imagery to help you remember. Think of a pretty bit of Irish bacon plodding in from the yard at dusk. The sow turns in to her quarters.
Gaeilge can be a tricky language, but if you happen to be celebrating Halloween in Ireland, or enacting ancient Samhain rituals, you may want to wish someone a Happy Samhain:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Duit
(Phoneticized in English as approximately: EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gwit).
Or, addressing more than one person, you say:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh
(EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gweave).
Why such a big deal about the correct Samhain pronunciation you ask? Well, it’s more to please the hardcore, really. As it’s an Irish term that’s up there with the Gaeilge vs. Gaelic debate as pet peeves for the (over)fastidious. Likely because of the perceived Americanization of the tradition, and the moving ever farther away from the original festival.
In pop culture, Samhain can be seen as some type of spirit. A curse, an evil demon, etc. We’ve written extensively about it elsewhere on the site, so check out our Celtic Festivals section for more to that end. Sufficed here to provide a quick example of the worst kind of ‘offenders’, Ghostbusters Samhain from the 1980s. Or rather Ghostbusters Sam Hain, a shadowy pumpkin-headed fiend set on wrecking the place and necessitating a fearless Ghostbusters Samhain showdown before all can be right with the world.
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh from Irish Buzz!