As you carve the pumpkins, hang the fake spider webs and stock up on candy for trick or treaters, you probably are not thinking about romance. But the Celts of old were. Halloween’s roots are in Samhain, the pre-Christian Celtic New Year. People believed that a veil separated this world from the spirit world, where the souls of the departed dwelled alongside various scary ghouls and monsters. They thought at the end of the year, October 31st, that veil was worn thin and porous so that spirits from beyond could visit this world to wreak havoc. Our ancestors carved scary faces into turnips to scare the spirits, and put out food to appease them. But the next day was the start of the New Year.
Once the danger of Samhain eve was past, people looked to the future. What would happen in the New Year? Would they be prosperous or hungry? And of course, the question that lurks in the minds of people past and present – would they find love in the New Year? Would they marry?
Traditionally, the Irish had various ways of fielding these pressing questions, and their methods evolved over the centuries. Our grandparents and great-grandparents played games with peeling fruit to see if the peels looked like anyone’s initials. And they had a special cake, the barmbrack, they put tokens into to represent what might happen.
How the Barmbrack Told Your Fortune
Barmbrack was for Samhain and later for Halloween. In addition to the raisins and sultanas, it included various symbols of what the future could hold. If you got a coin in your slice, you could look forward to a prosperous year. But if you got a piece of rag, you could expect to be poor. A thimble represented another year of being single, while a ring announced that you would find love or get married.
The ring was always the most coveted trinket, and even children who dreaded any contact with the other sex were known to fight over the ring. See, the Irish really have always been a nation of romantics! Over time, people gradually left out the other charms, and it was common for a barmbrack to have just a ring inside.
It isn’t easy to find a barmbrack in the grocery stores of North America, but you can make one. The ingredients are not hard to find – flour, raisins, tea, sugar, milk. And a ring of course. You probably don’t want to bake a real engagement ring into a barmbrack, but you can use a costume jewelry one as long as it is metal and not plastic. Be sure to wrap it in baking paper! And warn anyone eating it to use caution so they don’t choke.
If you are looking for a very special way to propose to your beloved, why not say it with a barmbrack? It’s a fun and tasty nod to your heritage, and it will make an unforgettable story to share. Nothing brightens up this dark and damp time of year like looking forward to a wedding!