Samhain – Irish Halloween Traditions

Halloween is HUGE in the US! I mean, stores overflowing with decorations, costumes and sweets (sorry candy!) Since the leaves even had a tinge of orange, every house in the neighborhood has been decorated with wreaths and pumpkins. People really get stuck into holidays and festivals here and I am really enjoying the fun!

Ghost pumpkin

It did make me think though, how many families while out trick or treating around the US know where Halloween originated? How have the traditions evolved over the years to what we have today? Well it may surprise you to find out that Hallow’een has stemmed from an ancient Irish new year festival known as Samhain which celebrated the end of a productive year and preparation for the winter. The Celts believed the boundaries between the afterlife and the present world were thinnest on the night. Bonfires were lit to mark the occasion. Pagan gods were honored, while offerings of food were made in the hopes that the spirits of those gone before would help those still on earth to make it through the winter. Today we make offerings in the form of sweets, nuts and coins!

Jack O'Lantern

As Christianity spread, pagan feasts were incorporated into the new religion to minimize disruption to tradition. It worked and Samhain became Feast of All Saints or All Hallows Eve in more recent years. Traditions evolved too, including carving turnips into lanterns in which embers from bonfires were carried. Legend had it that there was a man named Jack, who was cursed to spend all of time roaming the earth with only a burning coal inside a carved out turnip to light the way, as his punishment for trying to trick the devil. The one below doesn’t look scary at all does it?! Thanks English Heritage for the information! Irish immigrants in the US adapted this tradition using pumpkins which continue to be carved today.

Carved Turnip

Pumpkins of today are a bit more friendly looking for sure!


Growing up in Ireland, traditions were just as strong although modernized. I remember many halloween nights trick of treating in our neighborhood, wearing with a bed sheet or a black bin sack as a costume! Many halloween parties involved bobbing for apples, cutting piles of flour with a knife to find a coin and always, barmbraic was on the table. For me, it is a taste of childhood. Warm and spread with butter, I still remember sitting in our kitchen on a dark autumn morning tucking into this little slice of heaven. Just remember to watch out for the ring!

Halloween Barmbraic – Irish Fruit Bread

Slice of halloween barmbrack

Serves 8-12

  • 450g Plain or All purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Good grating of fresh nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 120ml Irish breakfast tea
  • 200ml milk
  • 50g butter
  • 30g sugar
  • 7g or 1 packet fast action yeast/active dry yeast
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 375g mixed dried fruit – If you can’t find mixed fruit, use a mixture of sultanas, raisins and currants.
  • 60ml water
  • 45g granulated sugar
  1. First, soak the fruit in the tea for at least a few hours or preferably overnight.
  2. Warm the milk with the butter until it is blood temperature – any hotter than 50C and you risk killing the yeast so don’t go crazy!
  3. In a large bowl, combine the flours, salt, spices and sugar. Add the yeast directly into the bowl (If using fresh yeast, you will have to “sponge” it for a few minutes in the milk.
  4. Add the egg and the fruit and tea mixture. I like to get my hands in there a this point and mix everything really well, kneading to a supple dough, it should become smooth but not sticky. You may need to knead in more flour if it is too wet but do not add too much! Its better to be too wet than too dry!
  5. Transfer to an oiled mixing bowl and cover with a tea towel or some cling film.. Allow to rise for about an hour or until its doubled in size – this will depend on the heat of your kitchen.
  6. After 1 hour, knock out the air and turn on to your bench. Shape into a neat ball and transfer to an 8in oiled round springform baking pan or a loaf tin. Allow to rise for another hour.
  7. Preheat your oven to 200C. When the dough is fully risen, brush the top with a little beaten egg then bake for 40-50 mins, until has a nice crust.
  8. To glaze, heat the water and sugar together until the sugar is dissolved and then boil for 2 mins. Brush the top of the the barmbraic all over with the glaze.

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