Ireland, Better Butter And the Origins of All Saint’s Day

by Ari Weinzweig

Halloween is hardly a new thing. Candy corn, caramel apples, pumpkins, witches, bonfires, devils, costumes . . . every American is pretty well familiar with it. Those orange and black decorations hit shop shelves in September and immediately kids all over the country start thinking of what costume they’ll wear this year. But while everyone knows the holiday, hardly anyone here knows where it started. At least I didn’t—it’s only this year that I learned its real origins—although both begin with the same four letters, the reality is that Hallmark and Halloween actually nothing to do with each other beyond the fact that the former takes full advantage of the latter to add to its sales each autumn. In fact, Halloween has its roots in ancient Ireland. It’s strange to me that the history behind such a widely celebrated “American” holiday should still be such a “secret.” Which, seriously, it pretty much is. I mean, if I, who loves both Ireland and obscure historical tangents, didn’t know from whence Halloween hath sprung, it’s pretty safe to say that very few others do either.

And yet, when you look at the history, there it is, plain as plain can be. While it may seem a secret it’s actually anything but. Honestly it’s almost mysteriously strange that I’d have missed it. Once you start looking, you’ll find that pretty much most everything we imagine when we think of Halloween come back to Irish roots—check out all the old Celtic tales and traditions and you’ll find fairies, witches, crosses, curses, trick or treating, pranks of all sorts, the spirits of dead souls coming back to visit, along with broomsticks, and bobbing for apples.

In his book, “The Year in Ireland,” (published, 1994) Kevin Danaher wrote that, “The first day of Winter is traditionally kept on 1 November, the Feast of All Saints, and the vigil of this day, Oiche Shamhna, Hallow E’en, Hollantide, is celebrated all over Ireland with feasting, merrymaking and divination.” The ancient ritualistic roots seem to start with an event the Irish still sometimes call Samhain. It’s the ancient Celtic harvest festival, formally celebrated in Ireland as “the first day of winter.” While that might make it seem as if winter comes really early, it’s actually the other way around. In Ireland the calendar could, I think, be effectively divided into two, rather than four, seasons. Despite the fame of those old soap commercials, you could probably get by just fine with nothing more on your planner than winter and summer. Certainly spring and fall show up on the calendar, but in truth there’s really not nearly as much difference between an Irish afternoon in November and another one in mid-February as you’d find here in Michigan.

From a spiritual standpoint Samhain was a time of great significance, a day when charms and spirits were out in abundance. The souls of the dead were said to come back, and there were all sorts of divining activities taking place. Rings in cakes, apple peels, and cabbage heads all were used to foretell the future. A lot about who would marry whom, who would live another year, who would be dead twelve months down the road. Sounds like Halloween, heh? Going further into Irish history it turns out that the original “Jack o lantern” got going in the 18th century with the story of a rather mischievous Irish blacksmith, named Jack. Having deviously deceived both the Devil and God, Jack was denied access to both heaven and hell. Instead he was condemned to an eternity of wandering the world. He asked the Devil for a bit of light to help him see where he was going, and was given a burning ember which he could carry around to light his way. The ember was inside a good sized, gouged out turnip, which he could carry to light his way. As the tradition grew, people would typically take a turnip and do the same, putting it in their window on display each year at Halloween. When Irish folks got to North America, the turnip turned out to be harder to get hold of but pumpkins—bigger and more easily available—worked out beautifully. And, as every American knows, we still use them today.

Building on those historical roots, the idea of bringing Halloween and fighting hunger together in an Irish context isn’t really a reach of a reach. Although there are certainly others around the world who’ve suffered, the people of Ireland are, historically, all too familiar with hunger. I probably don’t need to detail the deaths and duress of the Great Famine that struck Ireland in the middle of the 19th century. It’s been written about at length. Still the intensity of the Famine is hard to imagine today in the relatively prosperous 21st century western world in which we live. But read anything at all about the Famine and I’m sure you’ll get the idea; it’s had significant influence on pretty much everything about Ireland ever since it stuck in the middle of the 18th century. Just the numbers alone start to get the point across. The rough data is overwhelming—over the five years of potato blight, somewhere between a half a million and a million people—out of a population of roughly 6,000,000—died. About a million more emigrated in order to be able to find food and escape the poverty. And, in fact, Halloween was actually brought to prominence in the US, primarily by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine in the middle of the 19the century.

While the scale of the hunger in Ireland during the Famine certainly surpasses what we struggle with today, the reality is that for those who are going hungry, it matters little that statistically they’re part of a smaller group than were suffering from the potato blight back 160 years ago. Then, as now, hunger is debilitating; it’s hard to work, it’s hard to lead a family, it’s hard to grow up, it’s hard to function in what is already a challenging world to wend one’s way through when one is well fed. In truth, I don’t know what it’s really like—I’m fortunate to have never found myself living in hardship. But I can certainly start to imagine it. There’s an old Irish proverb that says that, ?’Everyone has debts at Halloween.’ For me, that hits home—this event is a chance for those of us who have more to help those who don’t, to provide some small but meaningful succor and support to people who live down the block and around the corner from us, often hidden, and certainly usually unacknowledged in our seemingly successful society. Every little bit helps to make a positive and needed difference.

One theme that comes up over and over again in Irish lore is that Halloween was a day when the fairies and ghosts of the dead were active. In most settings these visits have been perceived as something to flee from. Given that I’ve had about as little first hand experience in dealing with the dead as I have with hunger, there could likely be very good reasons to steer clear of dead souls. But I guess I’d like to take sort of a bit of a different approach. When I think about it now I’m not really sure what there is to be so afraid of. I mean more people than not are good, and live positive lives. So if the ghosts of the dead are active at Halloween, then maybe more good things than usual could happen at that time of the year.

Since none of us actually know what the dead will do when the swing by this year (though there’s probably some website with data on the deeds of the dead), I’m going to take the positive view and hope and believe in the best. I say let’s turn Halloween into a holiday that marks a time when the fairies and the good people of our community come back to help feed those in need, to pay—in a positive way—the debt to the community that that old Irish proverb spells out. And let’s tie the traditions of ancient Ireland and the modern fight against hunger together in a way that helps to honor the former and brings an end to the latter.

The tie between the Irish and fighting hunger is, to me, all the more appropriate because, having come to know Ireland and its people fairly well over the last twenty years or so, as much as the Irish suffered from the fallout of the Famine that struggle has never led them to abandon their spirit of generosity. To the contrary, the Irish remain amongst the most welcoming and sharing people I’ve come across in my many years of travel. Which is why, although I was surprised by the Irish origins of Halloween, I really wasn’t surprised at all that people from Kerrygold, who make the amazing butter we get from Ireland, stepped up to help sponsor this event and support Food Gatherers. Mind you, their offer is no small thing; funds for giving are never unlimited, and Ann Arbor clearly isn’t “their community.” And yet, they’ve chosen to share what comes in from their work with the butter to help feed hungry folks in here our community. It’s up to us who live here to match that spirit of giving, by supporting the work that the staff and hundreds of volunteers give to help Food Gatherers to feed those in need here in our community.

But take note that prominence of butter on the menu tonight and in this book, isn’t just about someone sponsoring the event. This isn’t just a nice corporate name on a good cause (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But in this case, butter has historical significance and a very appropriate role to play. What makes it so meaningful? Well, for openers, because paying tribute to Ireland and Irish food means starting with the most honored food they’ve got, which is, indeed, butter. It really is the iconic food of Ireland. Along with potatoes and Guinness and brown soda bread there’s no more important food you’ll encounter there. But butter predates potatoes by a long historical mile—spuds came in only long after Columbus, while the prestige of dairy products dates back to the ancient Celts.

Butter is here for Halloween too because in Ireland has a set of superstitions around that surpasses most any I’ve encountered around other foods. It’s here because data shows that the dead find it delicious—just kidding on that one. Because butter brings richness and color to everything and everyone who uses it—take one look at the golden color of Kerrygold that’s made from pasture grazing Irish cattle and it’s hard not to feel more positive about life and the world. And of course, it doesn’t hurt (on Halloween or any other day) that the Irish butter just plain tastes so darned good. It’s the greatness of the Irish butter today—both culinarily and economically—that’s supporting this gathering and the sharing of this little book that you have in your hands.

Looking ahead six months in the calendar, the opposite end of the celebratory spectrum in the Celtic world would be what’s known as Beltane (or “Bealtaine” in Irish, or simply now May Day in English). While Samhain marks the end of summer, Beltane brings its start. As with Samhain, superstitions abound—again, fairies are out and about and one needs to take care what one does and where one goes lest one run afoul of them. In that spirit, Beltane, or May Day, is known as the day that one’s “butter luck”—your ability to successfully transform cream into the all-important butter—was set for the rest of the year. While it’d be easy to laugh at this focus on butter luck, this was no small thing. As you’ll read in the essay that follows, butter is to Ireland what corn is to Central America, or olive oil is in the Mediterranean. It’s probably the most important ingredient in cooking, it’s essential to economic well being, it brings pleasure to the palate and it’s well woven into the culture in everything from religion to superstition. No butter luck meant no butter, which meant a major part of the family’s diet, would be gone and hunger and struggle would likely follow not far behind.

Today the travails of the Troubles and Famine are pretty firmly, I hope and think, behind us; the Irish are experiencing good fortune in ways they haven’t for many, many centuries. The economy is good, the country is doing well, and for the first time in 150 years there is positive population growth. Ireland has survived the poverty and hunger through which I t struggled and come out the other side.

Because they’ve been so generous in giving to our community, because I believe in Ireland, because I’ve learned to seek out and strive for the positive, I’m choosing to take the tack that the recent achievements of the Irish presage similar success in the fight against hunger and homelessness here in our own community. I hope that through the support of all the sponsors and people who’ve spent money to come to this event, we’re all able to make life just a bit more manageable for those in our community who have less than we do.

With that in mind, I should say that much of the old Celtic Halloween tradition is, as I’ve said, about telling the future, making up for past wrongs committed, about divining through signs and signals what’s going to happen. In “The Year in Ireland,” Kevin Danaher writes that, “Our elders saw evidence of a great festival in the food offerings left near doors of houses often outside, some of these being the last portion of the potato or corn garden of which a small part was left in the ground for the fairy host to ensure their favour for the coming year.” And, he continues, “Hallow E’en was a night when the housewife must open her cupboards and spread a little feast for the family. Even the poorest household must have something special for supper in honour of the night, and here, as on other festivals, more prosperous neighbours ensured that a present of milk, butter, vegetables and other ingredients of the feast, passed to their poorer friends as well as to their workpeople.” It’s hard to imagine a tradition more in keeping with what Food Gatherers and fighting hunger here in Washtenaw county (or anywhere really) is all about.

There aren’t easy times we’re living in, but then, really what times are easy? The sad reality is that there have always been people in need. In the spirit of all the generous souls of centuries past—Irish and otherwise—thank you for helping to feed those in need and house the homeless. Here’s to hoping things will always and only get better from here forward.