Oct 31, 2009

A More Authentic Hallow's Eve Experience In 4 Easy Steps!

Neighbors blow away real leaves and decorate their doorways with fake leaves; kids are yellow-bused off to pristine pumpkin patches; meanies turn their lights off so kids won't ring their bells; greenies shake their heads at plastic costumes (while kids shake their heads back at their sugar-free "treats"), and Martha-mummies attack any blank surface with orange frosting and glitter guns. Yes, it's Halloween, but it looks nothing like the Halloween I'd like to be celebrating.
Call it recession backlash, nostalgic flashbacks, or just plain old age, but I'm longing for a less-plastic and more authentic Halloween experience this year. If you’re feeling the same, here are four easy ways to scare up a little authenticity this (or maybe, next) Halloween:

1. Light the fires
All-night bonfires have long been an integral part of the Samhain end-of-harvest festival celebration, and they played a huge part in my childhood Halloweens. In my village (sidenote: rural Ireland—like rural Africa—has villages but the medicine man is known as a bartender in ours), kids gathered discarded tires, furniture, and anything flammable for weeks leading up to Halloween, and then everyone gathered together to reach and roar as the flames reached and roared out into the dark skies. I loved that it was fire, big and fierce and exciting and angry, and that young and old gathered together around it. I was also aware that it acted as a guiding light to the souls of our dear departed, who were free on this night to return to visit with us. I didn't love the idea of bringing our lonely ghost-relatives up to date on Coronation Street, so I focused on the belief that the flames also acted as a deterrent to evil-meaning spirits.

I can't really light a bonfire in my Brooklyn backyard, but I could get a fire-pit to ward off wayward spirits...

2. Swing some apples

Apples don't rate highly in my food pyramid most days, never mind actually making it out of the fruitbowl on Halloween (unless they're coated in caramel), but they used to be a big part of our Halloween games as kids. We hung apples on string from a height, and then, with hands tied behind our backs, we had to try to take a bite out of a swinging apple. Harder than it sounds! We also put apples in big bowls of cold water, and again with hands tied behind our backs, had to bob to try and get a bite. The apple peel game was played mostly by teenagers or unmarried women; to predict the initials of a future spouse or true love, an apple had to be peeled in one continuous unbroken peel, and when the peel was tossed over her shoulder it would fall in the
shape of the initial of her true love. For some reason it always spelled out "Gerard Butler" for me...

3. Tell a tall tale
Photo of Eddie Lenihan by Tony Murphy

When looking for authentic Irish tales of fairies (as opposed to fairytales), historical tales, devil stories, accounts of saints, of monsters, ogres, giants, ghosts and more, I always turn to Ireland's most precious resource, folklorist and seanchaí, Eddie Lenihan. Lenihan's a living database, a master storyteller, and a prolific writer. He has a wild head of hair, a head filled with wild and lively stories, and a mission to preserve and carry on the ancient tradition of storytelling. I turned to him this week for a little meat and character to add to my Halloween brew. In his The Devil is an Irishman collection, I found the story of "Jacko o'the Lantern," about Clare farmer Jack Murt who was granted three wishes by a spectral figure in a graveyard, and then entered into a decades-long battle of wits with the Devil. He outsmarted the Devil several times but was a little too smart for his own good, and for a finish found himself trapped in a half-existence, just a ghostly light wandering the backroads of Clare and Ireland. It's not your typical spooky story but it's a refreshing break from the gorey Halloween movies on TV, and it's full of Irish superstition, character, and humor.
Note: you can hear Eddie Lenihan tell a story over on his site.

4. Attack a brack
I've been working at a decent barm brack for a few weeks, struggling with mushy middles and a mushy conscience, too, but I'm so glad now that I have a traditional barm brack for Halloween. It's an easy bread to bake, and when you add in the pea, the coin, the ring, the cloth, and the stick—all wrapped in pieces of parchment paper and tucked into the loaf before baking—it makes for some fun eating. Kids of all ages enjoy getting a slice of fruity bread along with a slice of their future.

Fire, apples, stories, and brack; suddenly it looks—and feels—like Oíche Shamhna!

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