Samhain or Halloween has long been celebrated in America in a big way, and many feel that the UK has commercialised the day, making it into yet another ‘greetings card holiday’. Certainly, supermarkets can give that impression, as no sooner is ‘Back to School’ done with, Halloween costumes, home décor, sweets etc appear to tempt those into Trick or Treating and more…
Whilst there is an inevitable commercial element to the event, the roots of the day go back to the Celtic festival in Europe called Samhain – which in terms of Gaelic translation means ‘End of Summer’.
The last day of the Celtic calendar was 31st October, and also marked a time when the harvest had been brought in and winter would commence. It was a joyful occasion, families and community would come together and food and drink were shared.
There was a fair bit of fear that surrounded the date, and therefore many rituals to try and counteract any malevolent energy. You have probably heard many times that Samhain marked the time when the veil between worlds grows thin, allowing spirits to return to Earth. The Celts were concerned that any spiteful spirits could set about ruining the next harvest crops and land. The food and drink elements surrounding Halloween were not just for the community to share, but also by way of an offering to the spirits to appease them. Fires were also often lit, to keep evil spirits away to begin with – Celts believed that fire would scare them away.
Christianity spread over the centuries, and in so doing the church festivals altered. Samhain eventually became All Hallows’ Eve (31st Oct) and All Hallows’ Day (1st Nov), when martyred saints were remembered.
Today, Halloween is a hybrid of global traditions and customs, for example:
Being given an apple from the harvest was seen as good luck. One of the festival games was played by unmarried women. Each apple represented an eligible bachelor. The women would bob for an apple, and the one they managed to snag would reveal her future husband!
In the early days of Samhain, one way that ordinary folk could confuse spirits was to dress up, this would likely have been in animal pelts to disguise themselves as dead souls. Later on, costume dressing expanded and might have included being a demon, saint or even angel – this became part of the ritual of ‘Souling’.
Many of the games played were to do with match-making and marriage. They loved rituals that would predict who a person might marry. One simple game was to peel an apple and then throw the peelings over their shoulder. Then they would turn to see what letter the apple peel looked most like. This should mark the initial of their future husband’s name…
Originally, it wasn’t pumpkins that were carved, but turnips. This tradition started in America and turnips were more prevalent. People carved the turnips into Jack O’ Lanterns, in another effort to deter and scare evil spirits.
Trick or Treat
An early form of food offerings was in ‘Soul Cakes’, they were given to those going door to door in exchange for a prayer. They symbolise a soul being freed from purgatory. Sometime later this merged to ‘Souling’ (see above), and then later became ‘Guising’ at this point it is children that would seek fruit or even money, and in return, they would sing a song.
If you have ever been to America during Fall, their word for Autumn, then you will know that they are mad about the season. It starts with Halloween, then runs into Thanksgiving and is rounded up by Christmas. As I write this article Starbucks in the USA have already started selling their fall drinks. Think pumpkin, cinnamon, spices and more everywhere…
Back here in the UK, we still see pumpkins as largely just something that we carve for Halloween. Rather than something we should cook and eat. Even if we did, we are more likely to think of savoury dishes like soup and stews, than sweet pies. Partly because if you asked most of us, we would consider pumpkin to be a vegetable, but pumpkin is a berry! They were probably one of the first wild foods to be cultivated. Large round orange winter pumpkins belong to the wider Cucurbita family. These encompass, squashes that we are more likely to see in supermarkets and we eat more regularly (more on that below).
Beginners Guide to Pumpkin & Squash
This is probably a British staple, the one we cook with the most. It has a creamy and sweet flavour and is orange inside.
If you’ve holidayed in Italy, you may well have had this squash there. It has mottled green/grey skin. It is firm even when cooked with a lovely buttery flavour.
Not to be confused with Kombucha, but hailing from Japan – the skin is green and gnarly. The flesh is very sweet, and so probably more suited to desserts.
One of the smaller squash varieties, you may well have seen it in the shops being advertised as much as décor than anything else. It is pretty with green, white, yellow and orange splashes of colour.
If you want to try cooking pumpkin, you are better off seeking ones intended for cooking than for carving. An eating’ pumpkin should be considerably smaller.
If you think of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, it might have been modelled on this golden delight. It has a sweet flavour very similar in profile to butternut squash.
This squash has a short season (early October) and is hardly ever available in the UK. When it is cooked, you can take a fork to the insides and create strands. It is often used like we use courgetti, as a low carb pasta replacement.