Oh, autumn! It is the BEST season, and one of the longest because it comes in slowly, and takes its sweet time to segue into winter. At this point, when colors everywhere are burnished russet and gold, deep red and speckled green, our thoughts to turn to holidays of all sorts, which brings us here to Halloween.
An Obscure Holiday
This is the least transparent of holidays for an expatriate, and it puts me on the spot every year as I’m called upon to:
- Defend the commercialism of the holiday
- Explain exactly what it is
Focus on the What
I ignore the first part and focus on the second, which at first wasn’t easy since from birth I regarded Halloween simply as an opportunity to wander around in the dark dressed outlandishly, knocking on people’s doors to yell at them, then holding out a paper bag for the “thunk” of whatever candy was dropped into it. After that came the real commercialsm, when we were all inducted into the profession of trading: “I’ll give you two mallow bars for one peanut butter cup…”
Significance of Halloween
But one can’t really translate that to anyone who hasn’t had an American upbringing, so I turned to the significance of Halloween. I’ll share my story with you but sit down. It’s not JUST about witches and goblins.
Thank you, Celts
Halloween goes back to the Celts – ancestors to so many of us – who celebrated all changes of seasons. The Celtic feast day which fell around on the cusp of October to November (harvest time) was called Samhaine. It was considered a time of the Netherworld, as days shortened, temperatures fell, and the spirits of the dead roamed freely.
Fire, Costumes, Spirits
These spirits swirled around huge bonfires built by the Druids. The people, dressed in animal skins and heads, burnt crops and animal sacrifices to the deities, and told fortunes, which were savored throughout the short, cold days of winter. Once the bonfires burnt down, each family took an ember home to kindle their own fire, which would protect and keep them warm.
Then, the Romans
By the 9th century, the Romans had arrived to overtake the Celts, and during their 400 year rule they coopted Samhaine with their own celebration of the dead, called Feralia, which coincided with the feast of Pamona, the goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol is the apple. The Romans had fire and costumes, though theirs replicated Saints, angels, and devils. Later, the Christian world added the All Saints holiday to the fete, to legitimize it. Today, Toussaint is still celebrated in France on November 1, a national and church holiday focused on those gone by.
The Tradition Comes to America
The Halloween tradition came to North America with its ghost stories and witchcraft, much to the consternation of the original Pilgrims. Gradually the holiday became one for children and families, though certain frightful aspects have always been present. To temper it all, candy became the focal point. And thus, my explanation of Halloween, vague and incomplete as it is, though at least it provides a certain legitimacy to something which seems wholly based on decorations, costumes, and nothing.
My Version of Halloween
I had my own version of Halloween when my children were small, which involved costumed children and skeptical parents, a vaulted and very scary wine cellar, and an adult stationed behind each bedroom door of the house, where kids would knock and say “treek o tweet”, French for Trick or Treat. They had NO real idea why they were doing this, but since each doorway elicited candy, they loved it all.
Along with our celebration I always made this Halloween cake. Spiced, dark with molasses, sticky with caramel, tart with apples, it is a huge success in all cultures. So whatever your traditions you follow, add this to the mix for you ‘Alloween (French pronunciation) celebration, and have a wonderfully delicious time!
HALLOWEEN SPICE CAKE
- 2 cups (500ml) dark molasses
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (265g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup (125ml) strong coffee
- 4-1/4 cups 600g flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 4 teaspoons ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground mace
- 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 4 tart medium apples, cored and peeled
- ½ cup (125ml) vanilla sugar
- 2 cups (500ml) sour cream or crème fraîche
- ½ cup (75g) chocolate chips
- Preheat the oven to 350 (180). Oil a 13 x9x2-inch pan.
- Combine the molasses, butter, and coffee in a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. As soon as it boils, remove from the heat. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, and let cool to lukewarm.
- Sift the flour, salt, spices, and baking soda together onto a large piece of waxed paper.
- Core, peel, and halve the apples, then slice them into 1/4-inch thick slices. Line the prepared pan with the apple slices slightly overlapping them. Sprinkle them with the sugar.
- Add the dry ingredients to the molasses mixture, and mix quickly but thoroughly. Add the sour cream or crème fraîche, mixing just until it is incorporated. Fold in the chocolate chips, and then pour the cake batter over the apple slices.
- Bake in the center of the oven until the cake springs back when touched lightly and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and transfer it to a wire rack to cool, at least to lukewarm before serving.
- To serve, cut the cake in pieces and turn them out of the pan upside down, so the apple slices are on top. Or turn the whole cake out onto a large serving platter and serve.