Memories of Traditional Irish Halloween

Happy Halloween! 

While this time of year is huge worldwide, this ancient festival has its roots in Celtic Ireland and it seems when it comes to memories of a traditional Irish Halloween, the more bizarre the better!

Food and fire are always at the centre of all traditional Irish celebrations so here are some of the traditions that have stood the test of time - and others which are mere memories!

Halloween Barm Brack

Barm Brack 
The traditional Irish Halloween cake is a Barm Brack from the Irish name Bairín Breac. It’s a sweetened bread with fruit and other treats in it. They’re everywhere now in shops and usually contain a ring, but many people still make their own and put in the additional traditional objects to make it more fun with the suspense of each bite.

Each member of the family or group gets a slice and each prize found inside the cake has a different meaning:

  • The rag – means your financial future is doubtful
  • The coin – is a big winner as you will have a prosperous year
  • The ring – this it the big prize as it represents impending romance or continued happiness
  • The thimble – this is considered a tragedy as you’ll never marry

Halloween Bobbing Apples

Snap Apple
This is another tradition that still holds and is often seen at children’s Halloween parties.

The global pandemic and social distancing stopped this for a number of years, but it seems to be back with a bang. In Snap Apple, an apple is suspended from a string and the children are blindfolded and their arms tied behind their backs. The first child to get a good bite of the apple gets a prize.

Bobbing for apples is another tradition when apples are dropped into a basin of water. The children have to go in headfirst and try to get a bite usually resulting in huge drama as they and their surroundings get soaked!

Traditionally, the apples are associated with love and fertility, and this is how the games started. It’s said that whoever gets the first bite will be first to marry. It was also thought that if the girls put the apple they bit, while bobbing, under their pillow that night, they would apparently dream of their future partner!

Trick or Treating 
It’s extraordinary to think that children worldwide go trick or treating from house to house, but this tradition started in Celtic Ireland centuries ago. The poor would go from door to door to rich people's homes and ask for food, kindling or money. They would then use what they collected for their celebrations on Halloween. There were usually cries of ‘help the Halloween party’.

There would then be a big party around a bonfire, and many would be dressed up in elaborate costumes - often made from animal skins and sometimes even heads which nowadays would be considered horrifying.

The premise was that evil spirits would be scared off by the big fire. If they happened to be wandering the earth and bumped into one of the Celts, they might mistake them for a fellow spirit because of their ghoulish disguise and let them free. This is where the tradition of dressing up comes from. 

Halloween Pumpkin

Pumpkin Power 
And finally, it’s never a traditional Halloween without the pumpkins! There are two distinct interpretations of why the Irish carried a Jack-o-lantern. One is that in ancient Celtic times in order to carry home an ember from the communal bonfire, the people would hollow out a turnip so they could walk home with the fire still burning.

The other version is much spookier. It’s said that an Irish blacksmith, called Jack colluded with the Devil and was denied entry into Heaven. Condemned to walk the earth for eternity, he asked the Devil for some light. He was given a burning coal that burnt into a turnip that he had hollowed out. It was believed that hanging a lantern in their front window would keep Jack’s wandering soul away. The pumpkins still burn bright today!
Posted on October 25, 2022