BY SAMANTHA SCHWALM
Like Bow Wow Wow sang in their ‘80s pop hit “I Want Candy,” Halloween has transformed into a holiday dominated by candy, despite century old traditions more closely tied to other (healthier) foods.
Over the course of history, Halloween has developed many traditions, some dating back to ancient times and others unequivocally adopted in modern times. The use of pumpkins, gourds, and apples can be traced back centuries, while the importance of candy only become prevalent in the last 100 years.
The traditions of Halloween maintain strong cultural ties to three celebrations: the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Roman festival of Pomona, and Christian festival All Saints’ Day. Samhain, or “summer’s end,” is an ancient Celtic festival that marked the transition from summer and harvest season to the anticipated arrival of the long dark days of winter.
During this changing of seasons, the healthiest animals were taken to a winter shelter, while the animals who would most likely not make it through the tough winter were slaughtered, cooked, and became the center piece of the festival of Samhain’s main feast. This date was a very spiritual time for the pagan Celts. They believed this was the time the spirits of deceased ancestors were free to roam among the living and wielded tremendous powers. The Celts made offerings of food and wine to these spirits, in return expecting the spirits to warn them of any troubles that lay ahead.
They believed this to be the time when unwanted spirits could haunt the living. In order to cleanse their villages, the Celts would don “ghoulish disguises” so they might blend in with spirits themselves. The costumed Celts’ goal was to trick the evil spirits into following them in a parade out of their villages, thus ridding them for the upcoming season.
Pomona was a harvest festival dating back to ancient Roman times. Pomona was the Roman goddess of orchards and harvest. Ironically, like the Celts, the Romans also chose the same date, November 1, to celebrate her importance to their society through offerings of nuts, apples, and other orchard fruits. As the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, the Samhain and Pomona festivals naturally merged into a single holiday, with important traditions from each society maintained.
As Christianity’s influence grew in Europe, the previous two holidays slowly transitioned into the Christian celebration know as the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Again, the date November 1st was selected to mark a religious holiday honoring the saints. It was around this time in history when “soul cakes” were first referenced. The origin stories of these cakes vary quite widely—some writings describe the cakes as baked in bonfires as part of ritual sacrifice, while other tales tell of soul cakes being tossed on the ground in sacrifice to appease evil spirits condemned to wander the earth in animal form.
Fortunately, by the eighth century, soul cakes were mentioned in a more consistent fashion. They were often given to beggars who knocked on doors offering to say prayers for a family’s departed loved ones on All Souls Day, with the thought of one cake given, one soul saved.
Given the number of cultures merging at the time, it is not surprising that the recipes for soul cakes are incredibly varied. Soul cakes are described as being made of leavened yeast-based dough, others flat and dense as tombstones. Whether square, round, cake-based, bread-based, or a biscuit marked with a cross (or made with ginger and spices), the importance lies less in the ingredients of these cakes but in their place in history.
As Irish immigrants came to the United States following the potato famine, they brought many of the ancient traditions associated with Samhain, Pomona, and All Saints’ Day to America. Irish immigrants were known to hollow out turnips and mangel wurzels (a large white, yellow, or orange-yellow swollen root developed in the eighteenth century as a crop for feeding livestock, now what we may refer to as a golden beet). These root vegetables were often carved with grotesque faces and used as lanterns to ward off evil spirits.
Root vegetables were quickly replaced with America’s much larger pumpkins and gourds, and the Jack-O-Lantern was born. A staple of Halloween and the feast season of November, a majority of pumpkins are grown specifically for carving and decoration, with others specifically harvested for the seeds that adorn our tables as snacks and fill our pies at Thanksgiving.
It is believed that modern day trick-or-treating draws its roots from “soulers” going door to door looking for food, which evolved into young men traveling neighborhoods on All Hallows’ Eve singing “souling” songs. After World War II, the focus of trick-or-treating grew as a popular youth activity. Treats of the time included pumpkin and witch cookies and devil’s food cupcakes decorated with orange and black frosting, the orange representing autumn harvest and black representing evil spirits who ruled the nighttime.
As time passed, candy replaced cookies and apples once used for offerings were now used for bobbing and cider. The one constant of Halloween has been its continuous evolution, punctuated in modern times by its celebration of costumes, food, trick-or-treating, and candy.
I know in our house, Halloween is a wonderful evening to have an open house for neighborhood family and friends. Friends with large packs of trick-or-treating kids come and go, the adults grabbing a quick beer or glass or wine, a bowl of meaty chili, or simply warming up by the fire that is typically roaring in our front room. Large groups of kids in the basement, consuming and trading candy while their parents enjoy precious moments of adult conversation on a night dominated by running, screaming, over-sugared children. In the end, our basement carpet needs to be cleaned the next day, we never seem to cook enough food, and in spite of all the candy in our house, my favorites candy bars seem to disappear first.
We have developed our own holiday traditions, building upon the many important ones from Celts, Romans Catholics, Irish, and the spirits themselves.Samantha Schwalm is owner of Paris Kabat Catering, providing personal chef and cooking services in Chicago. She can be followed on Instagram: paris_kabat_catering and at FB: Paris Kabat Catering.