November 1 is the first day of winter. The night before is Hallowe’en, and is marked with feasting, merrymaking and divination.

The Celts celebrated Hallowe’en as the Feast of the Dead, when the dead revisited the mortal world. The fairies are abroad on that night as well, so it can be quite congested what with all the comings and goings.

The Church designated the first day of November as All Saints or All Hallows Day. So, All Hallows Eve became Hallowe’en.

The púca is a malicious fairy and it is his wont to spit on wild fruit on Hallowe’en so that nobody should dine on berries as winter progresses.

On the night, many families leave unused produce out to feed the fairy host as it proceeds to blast with its breath all berries, thistles, ragworth and hedgerows.

Traditional Hallowe’en foods include colcannon: boiled potato, curly kale cabbage and raw onions. Coins are wrapped in baking paper and placed in dinners for children to find.

Hallowe’en barmbrack is a fruit bread laced with hidden clues and each person gets a slice. Finding a rag suggests your financial future is doubtful. A coin presages a prosperous year. A ring is a sign of romance or continued happiness, or marriage.

Children dress in scary costumes and go house to house asking householders to “’Help the Hallowe’en Party.”’

Celtic Druids dressed as spirits in case they encountered spirits during the night. Witches, goblins and ghosts remain the most popular choices for costumes amongst children and adult revellers alike.

Indoors, children play games — the most popular of which is Snap Apple.

An apple is suspended from a string and children are blindfolded. The first to get a bite of the apple keeps their prize. The same game is played by placing apples in water and biting the apple with hands held behind the back.

Outdoors, older children light bonfires; often unaware they are continuing a centuries-old tradition.

To celebrate the start of winter Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People brought produce and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner in celebration.

After the festival, people re-lit household fires from the sacred bonfire to help protect and keep them warm during the winter.

Nowadays, householders drag garden cuttings and unwanted domestic furniture to the fire and set it all ablaze, and may go seeking spirits in bottles. Some even bring them home with them.

Extract from the Irish Companion by Brendan Nolan

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