What Is Samhain? And What Should I Cook for It?
While Samhain (pronounced saah-win) may take place at the same time as Halloween, this ancient pagan celebration is distinctly different. Read on to learn more about this beloved holiday and the best dishes to enjoy on the day.
What Is Samhain?
Samhain originated in ancient Europe as a Celtic holiday, but today, it is an event that is celebrated worldwide. It's a pagan holiday that acknowledges the end of the harvest and honors the changing of the seasons, with cold weather right around the corner.
It is believed that during Samhain the veil between the living world and the land of the dead is thinned, meaning communication with ancestors and dead loved ones is easier. Due to this, family and friends that have passed away are traditionally honored during Samhain.
This honoring can be anything from making your loved one's favorite foods to lighting a candle near their photo. A "dumb supper" is also customary. This is a silent meal that includes a place setting at the dinner table for someone who has passed on.
Since in Celtic culture the day began and ended at sunset, Samhain is traditionally observed from sundown on October 31 through sundown on November 1st. Some people, however, celebrate for several days.
Related: Try Our Samhain Pumpkin Bread
What Foods Are Traditionally Served During Samhain?
Since Samhain is the end of the harvest, a feast is typically part of the celebration. Focus on in-season foods, which would have soon become scarce, such as pumpkins, apples, potatoes, and cruciferous vegetables.
According to Sabbats: A Witch's Approach to Living the Old Ways, meat was also a part of Samhain meals, with the herding cultures of Ireland, Britain, and eastern Europe choosing to slaughter many of their livestock instead of attempting to feed them through the long winters.
Samhain originated in ancient times, so not that many of the "traditional" recipes are still around for modern day home cooks. Still, there are plenty of options that will keep in the holiday's spirit. Below are a few recipe suggestions that will make your next Samhain a delicious one:
One of the most popular foods to serve for Samhain is soul cakes. Samhain: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Halloween reveals that these tasty treats originated as an act of charity. Particularly in the British Isles, on Samhain night, the poor would visit wealthy houses to ask for aid like food or money, for which they would offer prayers for the homeowner's dead loved ones in return. As a kind of payment and blessing for the prayers, the wealthy would give these visitors soul cakes.
The definition of a soul cake varies depending on what region, or even household, is making them. The texture can be anything from biscuit-like to soft cakes, with most recipe including a type of dried fruit (such as golden raisins or currants) and spices (like nutmeg and cinnamon). We recommend trying our fluffy crumpets recipe, which can be customized with your preferred spices and a handful of dried fruit.
Most pagans associate wassail, a mulled cider punch, with Yule, but it was a traditional part of Samhain, too. Sabbats: A Witch's Approach to Living the Old Ways describes the ancient act of wassailing as when over imbibed guests would throw rocks in apple orchards to frighten away the fae (a type of mythical creature like a fairy), while also drinking to the trees' health. Today, wassailing is more often used to refer to toasting to a friend's health with the wassail punch, or going door-to-door singing during Yule time.
Wassail is a fruity and sweet beverage, typically made with apple cider, orange juice, a range of heady spices, and often sliced citrus fruits. It can be made alcoholic by opting for hard apple cider or adding a splash of your favorite warm liquor, like bourbon or brandy. Start with this wassail punch recipe, which is kid-friendly, and customize to your heart's content.
Barmbrack is a traditional Irish bread that's associated with Samhain, and it is still typically served during Halloween festivities there today. Barmbrack is a mildly sweet bread, studded with dried fruits like raisins and flavored with fresh citrus zest.
The most fun part about barmbrack is that it's often baked with trinkets inside to act as a form of fortune telling. Every item has its own distinct meaning and predicts the person's upcoming year. A ring predicts a marriage, coins are for wealth, a piece of cloth symbolizes hard times, and a dry pea shows no marriage will happen this year. There are also regional differences, so feel free to mix and match items to include personal meanings/predictions. If you're planning on putting trinkets inside your barmbrack loaf, make sure they're thoroughly washed and inside parchment paper, then warn guests to avoid a choking hazard.
Colcannon is a staple dish of Samhain, likely because all of its ingredients are in season. The base is creamy mashed potatoes, mixed with cooked greens (typically cabbage or kale) and sometimes onions, too. This stick-to-your-ribs side dish will round out any Samhain feast, and is great for keeping warm on a cold evening around the bonfire.