DESPITE the bank holiday being last Monday, every right-thinking person knows that this coming Saturday night is Hallow-E’en — or, to give it its rightful name, Samhain, the last day of the Celtic year. November 1 is New Year’s Day to all Celts.
It was the Christian church which first changed the name to Hallow-E’en or All Hallows Eve. There was no chance of getting people to forget the traditional festival, which had been observed for thousands of years, so they did the next best thing and called it something else.
The ancient Celts believed that the spirits of our ancestors came back at this time to see if we were looking after things properly. It was a fairly simple step for the Church to utilise those beliefs and transform them into All Souls Day and All Saints Day.
You could still believe in ghosts and vengeful spirits of your relatives, but you did it with a Christian overlay.
It has worked pretty well over the centuries since, although not all those who delightedly practice the customs of Hallow-E’en realise that many of these are distinctly pagan in origin. Most of them have their source in trying to tell what the year ahead would bring — peeling an apple so that the unbroken skin would show the initial of the one you would marry; placing nuts along the edge of the fireplace to see which one popped first; or, scariest of all, combing your hair in front of a mirror with a candle either side, to see if a face from the future would look over your shoulder.
More reassuringly, how many of you bobbed for apples or played at Snap-Apple on October 31 in your childhood? Every single reader, it would seem, to judge by the plentiful correspondence on the topic.
Mary Holly remembers being taught about the ancient customs of Samhain at school.
“I have to admit that the Americanisation of it nowadays really disappoints me. When I had children of my own, I made sure that we practised all the old traditions and made them fun.”
In her own childhood, Mary says they always had barmbrack, sometimes even getting impatient and getting one in advance of the 31st.
“Mum usually made it herself, and put a silver sixpence in. We vied for the ring, pea, bean, rag and stick. (Fainne, pis, ponaire, brat agus bata, if I remember my school Irish. Sorry the fadas are missing).”
After that, her mother would spread an oil cloth on the kitchen floor and her father would fill the baby bath with water.
“We would bob for apples and towels would be handed around as we four girls and probably neighbouring kids would have our hair thoroughly wet by then. After that, Dad would tie twine to the stalk of an apple and hang it above the open kitchen door. We had to try and get a bite of the apple as it swung wildly on its string. Hands were to be held strictly behind the back, but often, in desperation, some cheating took place!”
Peanuts (or as they were more generally known then, ‘monkey nuts’ were part of the celebrations too. “A lot of shells for little return, to be honest.”
The apples for the Holly household came from the African Missions orchard in Wilton, and Mary explains the official procedure.
“There were set times during the week when we could go up to the SMA house and on down the lane to the gate in the orchard wall. We would knock, and one of the priests or a workman would answer. He would take the proffered bag and ask if we wanted eaters or cookers. If we needed both, we had to supply two bags.
“He would close the door, go off and return with the bags full. Money was handed over and we headed home with our bounty.
“The wall of the orchard was very high. I never heard if anyone succeeded in ‘slocking’ from the priests. Does anyone want to ‘fess up’ after all these years?”
In Johnny Campbell’s house on the Lower Glanmire Road, they observed all the customs and games too, but he says they never went out knocking on doors, nor did they dress up.
Cutting the barmbrack was a big ceremony, with much excitement over who would get which token. And he adds another fascinating detail which is new to us, but may be familiar to other readers.
“I believe that in more religious homes, a miraculous medal would be added to increase the possibility of a vocation in the family.”
Can anybody else confirm this most interesting fact?
Tom Jones — now living in Florida — says he is much entertained by modern YouTube clips of such delights as the Dragon of Shandon and other Cork events at Hallow-E’en. As he says truly, “ Shur t’was far from it we were reared”.
Back in the 1950s, he says there was certainly no dressing up, going trick or treating. “Snap-apple night enjoyment consisted of a galvanized tub (which doubled for the Saturday night bath for many) filled with perhaps six inches of water with apples and nuts floating around. The nuts were generally soft-shelled peanuts although I do recall a smidgen of hard ones of a different type that required a hammer or other heavy implement, to crack the shell.”
Possibly he is referring to brazil nuts, which were always a headache to deal with.
To partake in this game, he emphasises, you would have to capture the goodies only with your mouth. No hands allowed. Plus, in his house, you started off blindfolded!
And he has a message for today’s glooming lockdowners: “Believe it or not, yes, this can be done, so all you Doubting Thomases, think about it, or better still, try it, now you’re in these unfortunate times.”
Tom lived on Spangle Hill, where public lighting was at a minimum. Some of the bigger lads would lurk hidden in a gate or behind a hedge with a sheet wrapped round them, and jump up with a banshee wail to frighten passers-by. Smaller kids would huddle in corners and tell each other scary stories. But that was as far as it went. Nobody recalls going out banging on doors and demanding sweets or money.
“No, we never went visiting,” recalls Eileen Barry. “Instead we would get into the spirit of things by playing ghost trains up and down our hall in the dark. One of us would be the train, creeping along on hands and knees, while the others frantically tried to get out of the way by climbing the banisters. It got quite terrifying.”
She also remembers the excitement of their father bringing home a real coconut, which had to be drained of its milk before being broken into pieces and shared around.
Jimmy didn’t move to Cork until his teenage years but generously shares his memories of Snap Apple Night in a small Tipperary village.
“The excitement usually started when Mam went to the small cupboard and got the barm brack which contained the ring, the bean, the pea, the rag and the stick.
“As there was only myself and my sister, it was agreed that we would get two chances each and the stick would be thrown in the fire by my father as none of us wanted to be beaten.
“On one occasion, my first choice yielded the bean, but alas on my next visit to the table I got the pea. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, and I spent the rest of the week trying to figure out how I was going to avoid losing all the money I accumulated in the first place!
“Later in the night, all 12 of the kids on the street would gather at a friendly neighbour’s house for Snap Apple. An apple would be suspended from the ceiling by a piece of strong twine and a coin (usually a halfpenny) would be concealed in it. The challenge was to get the money by biting on the apple with your hands tied behind your back. Hint: use your shoulder.”
Later, there was bobbing for apples, but these were sliced into quarters, with a small coin in each — usually a halfpenny — but one precious segment would contain a silver threepenny bit.
“The only way to succeed was to jam the piece against the side or force it to the bottom, and the only fireworks were when someone tried to cheat or a child was in danger of drowning.
“As you can imagine, by the time the last child got a turn, the state of the water in the basin was far from hygienic.
“Funnily enough, I never remember anyone complaining of sickness afterwards and by 9.30 or 10 o clock all were happily curled up in bed.”
Yes, Hallow-E’en today is definitely more commercialised, and partakes of many different customs which came from all over the world into America and then over here to us eventually, but the original Celtic festival of Samhain is still strongly observed. As it should be.
What are your memories? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. And a happy Celtic New Year to you all!