halloween blogapalooza

by wandermom
( October 28th, 2008 )

Tara, Ireland

I grew up in a rural Irish town next to Tara, the mythical capital of Ireland. Today, Tara doesn’t look like much – all that’s left are the impressions much older structures left on the landscape. All the same, it doesn’t take much for me to imagine what Tara would have been like at just this time of the year many centuries ago, busy with preparations for the Celtic New Year fest of Samhain (sow-an). On ‘Oíche Shamhna’ (ee-ha how-na), the eve of the feast of Samhain, the Celts believed that the spirits of the dead roamed the earth. We know this celebration as Halloween.

On the first Halloween I spent in the U.S., I remember being quite stunned by how seriously people took the holiday: wearing Halloween-themed clothing, diligently carving pumpkins with elaborate designs and festooning their houses with all manner of gothic décor. Such a change from the Halloween traditions with which I had grown up. I’m intrigued by how some of the original traditions have survived over here and some have been dropped altogether.

Photo credit: rayolite

The most important part of Halloween when I was a child was building the bonfire. Traditionally, bonfires were built to ward off evil spirits. Not that this mattered in my neighborhood. Impromptu groups of kids who wouldn’t usually even speak to each other coalesced to build the biggest possible pile of combustible materials to burn on Halloween night. Rivalries between neighborhoods were challenged and reinforced in daily ‘bonfire collections’. Playground bragging rights were awarded to the group with the biggest bonfire and the bonfire which burned the longest. As a Mom I’m relieved that this particular tradition doesn’t enflame passions in the U.S.

Traditionally, turnips were used as Jack O Lanterns. If you’re not familiar with turnips, they’re dense root vegetables popular in the British Isles. And by dense, I mean knife-dulling, wiry and fibrous. No way you can slice through this puppy and scoop out the insides. They are possibly, maybe, suitable as replacement heads for scarecrows (a la Worzel Gummidge). Pumpkins make much, much better Jack O Lanterns. Trust me on this one.


I do miss Irish Halloween food traditions: Barnbrack and Colcannon, nuts and apples. I can understand why Colcannon isn’t popular since let’s face it, cooked cabbage is a truly stinky vegetable. But I think there’s room for Barnbrack. It’s a neat tradition: fortune-telling gifts hidden within the bread. Find a coin and you’ll be rich; find a rag and you’ll be poor; find a thimble and you’ll never marry; find a ring and you’ll fall in love within the year. Truly old-fashioned, I know, but a great source of excitement around my Mom’s table every year. Maybe I’ll take my un-domesticated, culinary-challenged self to the local grocery store and introduce this particular tradition to my kids this year.

This post is part of Angela’s Blogapalooza. Thanks for hosting this Angela and Happy Halloween everyone!


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On October 29th, 2008 at 6:59 am, jessiev said:

great customs! i LOVE colcannon!

On October 29th, 2008 at 8:23 am, Karen said:

Thanks for the introduction to other Halloween customs! Gotta admit, scary as the whole bonfire thing would be as an adult, I can imagine it being great fun as a kid!

On October 29th, 2008 at 9:37 am, ICQB said:

Thanks for the window into Irish traditions on Samhain/Halloween. The bread with fortunes in it sounds delightful and fun!

On October 29th, 2008 at 10:43 am, Jyl said:

Love this post. What great traditions. Wouldn’t want to try and carve a turnip, but I love the bonfire idea.

Thanks for sharing. One day, you’ll have to take us GNO Gals on a tour of Ireland. Wouldn’t that be fun. From virtual to the Emerald Isle with a bunch of giggling gals. I can imagine the plane ride now LOL!

On October 29th, 2008 at 11:13 am, Angela Nickerson said:

Fabulous post! I love knowing about holidays in other countries and cultures. Thanks for participating in Blogapalooza!

On October 29th, 2008 at 11:53 am, sruble said:

Very cool post, and I love the first picture. It’s interesting to learn about other Halloween customs, but I’m glad the bonfires aren’t big here too. I could see that getting out of hand fast.

On October 29th, 2008 at 2:06 pm, Kelly said:

Barnbrack is a cool custom….I”m surprised it is not more popular in the states…

On October 29th, 2008 at 3:41 pm, Adrienne said:

I enjoyed learning about those customs. Barnbrack does sound like fun.

On October 29th, 2008 at 4:59 pm, Sara said:

This was fun to learn about, thanks for sharing your story. Bonfires are so much fire. But, it’d probably get a little crazy.

On October 29th, 2008 at 9:03 pm, Mara said:

For mystery and charm, Ireland just kicks the U.S. in the behind, even if we have figured out a better vegetable to use as jack o’lanterns.

And, BTW, being married to someone of German descent from the midwest, I do get my fill of cooked cabbage! Phew!

On October 29th, 2008 at 11:56 pm, Worzel Gummidge said:

I like a peice of cake and a cuppa tea with aunt sally at halloween.

On October 30th, 2008 at 2:48 am, Susanna (A Modern Mother) said:

Imagine my girls surprise when we moved back to the UK (after three years in California) and they found that their friends all wear “scary” costumes here, instead of the nice princesses and fairies.

Can not imagine carving a turnip!

On October 31st, 2008 at 8:08 pm, Quickroute said:

I’d almost forgotten about the barnbrack.
We used to have sparklers and bangers (mini fireworks) too – good memories!

On November 3rd, 2008 at 7:33 pm, Mark H said:

What interesting food but carving up turnips?

On November 3rd, 2008 at 11:34 pm, wandermom said:

@Quickroute: sparkers! totally. I’d forgotten about those.

@MarkH: I’m not even sure that you can get turnips in Oz. I tried carving one up once as an older kid. Didn’t work at all. No idea how people used to do it. Obviously some trick which has been lost since we all use pumpkins now.

@Susanna: yes, Halloween in the British Isles is all about scary. No cutsey Disney costumes over there!

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  1. from all the traveling moms - WanderMom on March 1st, 2009 at 9:48 pm
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