Hallowe’en is the holiday that most reminds me of my Irish upbringing. I well remember trailing costumes, cobbled together from grown-up cast offs, down muddy country lanes, only seeing the puddles through the cardboard slits of our homemade masks when it was too late. And for all our effort we might get a handful of nuts, some windfall apples, or an orange. Mrs. Topping was the last stop, and if we were lucky she might have a few pennies or a chocolate bar for us to savor on the way home. Flickering light from bonfires and the smell of woodsmoke, intensified by the sharp frosty air, added to the mystery of the night. There was a always the possibility that something unearthly might grab you from behind before you made it home.
I’ve spent many an evening trick-or-treating with my kids in our hometown in New York’s Hudson valley—my daughter even has a Hallowe’en birthday. But none come close to capturing the spooky feelings of my childhood. The reason, I think, is simple. The tradition of Oiche Shamhna, or ‘the vigil of Saman,’ the Lord of Death, is so deep-rooted in Ireland that you can sense it palpably.
Throughout Ireland . . . lesser feast days pale in comparison with the culminating festival which marks the end of the dying year on All-Hallows Eve. An astonishing amount of lore still clings to Hallowe’en . . . The crops should now be all gathered in and no fruit should be picked after this date, for the púca, a supernatural being, is busy befouling unpicked fruit . . . we notice superstition acting as a stimulus towards the completion of routine tasks. The return of the livestock from their summer grazings, once accompanied by their herders, made the occasion one of family reunion, and this is a strong element in the present festival. But it was also a reunion with the ancestral spirits of the family: for Hallowe’en was preeminently a commemoration of the dead, a time when ghosts and fairies were unusually active, the whole of the world of the supernatural astir and the dead returned to their earthly homes. On that night the grass-grown homesteads—the fairy raths—were wide open and the fairies were on the move to winter quarters, surely a folk memory of a former transhumance. It used to be thought unlucky not to make preparations for the return of the dead by leaving the door of the house open, putting out tobacco and traditional dishes such as sowans—a kind of porridge—and setting seats around the fire. The games and amusements which alone survive have commonly degenerated into pranks and horseplay, but one can detect in them echoes of magical observances. The many divination customs may well have begun as rites to avert evil or to secure the benefits which they now pretend to forecast. Among the things involved in these games and divination customs are apples nuts, oatcakes, cabbages, a ball of yarn, articles made of straw and rushes, and herbs such as yarrow . . . The breaking of pots is one of the elements in Hallowe’en pranks—one might almost say rites—and again we notice the association with the dead, for All-Hallows is the time when the dead are believed to return to their homes.
Evans, E. Estyn, Irish Folk Ways, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. © 1957Colcannon is one of the foods traditionally eaten at Hallowe’en. Often a dish of this would be left out for visitors from the other world. This recipe comes from Theodora FitzGibbon’s A Taste of Ireland.
1lb each of kale or cabbage, and potatoes, cooked separately
2 small leeks or green onion tops
1 cup of milk or cream
4 oz. (½ cup) butter
salt, pepper, and a pinch of mace
Have the kale or cabbage cooked, warm and well chopped up while the potatoes are cooking. Chop up the leeks or onion tops, green as well as white, and simmer them in milk or cream to just cover, until they are soft. Drain the potatoes, season and beat them well: then add the cooked leeks and milk.
Finally blend in the kale, beating until it is a pale green fluff. Do this over a low flame and pile it into a deep warmed dish. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough melted butter to fill up the cavity. The vegetables can be served with the melted butter. Any leftovers can be friend in hot bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.
If all that butter and cream weren’t fun enough—
A plain gold ring, a sixpence, a thimble, or a button are often put into the mixture. The ring means you will be married within a year; the sixpence denotes wealth, the thimble a spinster and the button a bachelor, to whoever gets them.
This is what the cricket tells me . . .
Earth is tilting away from the sun,
The cold breeze raising goosebumps
Leaves are moldering on the lawn,
The goldfinch has shed his sunflower vest
And donned a coat of mourning.
Oak is the last man standing,
Thatched in stiff brown.
This is what the cricket tells me . . .
The cornfields are stubble-ribbed,
Fine stopovers for flocks of geese
That drift down in squawking hordes
To feast on farmers’ leftovers.
Stalks have withered in pumpkin fields
Leaving squat orange Jack-o-lanterns
Ripe for carving.
This is what cricket tells me . . .
Frost is on the way.
That row of late-sown lettuce—
Waste of time—
Pick the Swiss chard now
Before it freezes.
Pull the rattling bean husks off the vine;
Next year’s seeds are dry.
This is what cricket tells me . . .
The Red-Tailed Hawk
Has caught a mouse,
One of this summer’s brood,
And devoured it in one gulp.
She knows, too
The season is gathering up her skirts
To take one last curtsey.
This is what the cricket tells me.
Burst of sunshine
Lighting death dates
Year, month, and dayHilltop graveyard
One room schoolhouse
Inn and churchyard
Hamlet spread out
Settlers’ green bones
Through the soil
They called their ownOld-world graveyard
Back to nature
All must follow
Feeding roots of
Oak and maple
Joined in union
Salt of the earth
There is an old graveyard near my home. It sits atop a hill surrounded by a hamlet dating back to the 18th century. The one room schoolhouse and church are a stone’s throw away. The parsonage, inn, and farmhouses are spread out at the foot of the hill. A dull school child could watch the gravedigger at work across the road. The journey from farmhouse, to church, to graveyard—a small triangle.
Many of the tombstones have been wiped clean by wind and rain. Those that are legible show a curiosity: Death dates meticulously recorded to the month and day, but no birth dates. The school mistress would only have to lead her pupils in a straggly line across the road and up the hill to impart a math lesson: If Mr. Walling died on March 30th, 1860, aged seventy-five years, eight months and fifteen days, on what day was he born?
There’s a turkey gobbling in the woods behind the house, and condensation on the windows. There’s a low-slow cricket trill coming from the stone wall, the blue jays and crows are serenading the first frosty morning, and the squirrels croon to themselves in the black walnut as they fuss over their nuts. And so the slow countdown to winter begins. It seems like only yesterday I was marveling at the new foliage, fresh and hopeful, like clean laundry. Now the leaves of the maple outside my window are curling and faded to an anemic yellow. Melancholy is a good word to describe the feeling of September. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness, as the English poet John Keats wrote. It leaves me with an ache in my heart for the glorious, carefree summer days, real or imagined.
Yet at the same time a steady candle flicker of excitement burns in me. It’s time to refocus my energies on new projects, and reenergize the old ones. My brain that gets muddled by the soporific heat of July, and lazy in the enervating humidity of August, has clicked into gear. The days and night aren’t long enough for all the things I want to do. Like the birds and the bees, I have replenished my store of energy over the summer and am ready to get my fingers stuck into a cool, damp lump of clay and see if the magic happens. I’m itching to sketch up a new design to knit, and experiment with the bounty of the season in the kitchen. I feel ripe to bursting with ideas. I’m chomping at the bit to crank out the outline of a middle grade novel I’ve been dreaming up, and research a new picture book. My new camera is begging to be to taken for a hike. There are friends to visit, and trips to the city to take my freshly minted college student out to lunch. I think I’ve caught the squirrel fever—Quick, get it done. Get it done. Now if only the dwindling morning light would make it a little easier to get up in the morning.Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease, For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. -John Keats, excerpted from To Autumn, September 19th, 1819