Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween Treats

Halloween is more than pumpkin pie,ginger snaps and  caramel apples. I love to make soft molasses cookies during the Autumn and Winter months because they are warming to the palate and spirit. This is the time of the year when I make apple cakes with black walnuts and pear pies with crumb topping. There are a quite a few variations of apple pie, too (My favorite incorporates a few drops of red food dye and crushed cinnamon hard candies to make it into candy apple pie. Don't use too many, or you will need a hammer to break the surface to serve it. Not kidding). Don't get me wrong, I do love pumpkin pie. The one I make is primarily a pumpkin custard,with lots of eggs and cream, rather than the traditional one made with pumpkin puree and resembles sweet potato pie. Years ago I came across a recipes that hand a layer of mincemeat spread inside the casing with the pumpkin mixture baked on top. With a big dollop of heavy whipped cream, it is spicy, rich and practically a meal by itself (serve it with a cup of coffee, it's almost too heavy for even the blackest of teas). Cooked mixed fruits- plums, apricots,pears, peaches, cherries, blueberries, strawberries-whatever is available, is delicious in a pie or baked with a crumb topping and served alone or with vanilla ice cream. Don't forget the walnuts!

Barmbreak ( Bairin breac) is one of Ireland's most popular baked goods traditionally served for Halloween ( and other times!) The name comes from the Gaelic word breac which means speckled, referring to the spots made by the fruit in the loaf. It is a type of fruit bread, soft and slightly cake-like. It is different than the traditional fruit cake served at Yule.

1tsp dried yeast
1 1/2 Cup water
2 oz+1 tsp sugar for the yeast to activate ( an ounce is a approximately 2 Tablespoons American)
1 lb all purpose flour ( approximately 3 1/2 cups American measure)
dash of salt
2 oz butter
6 oz raisins
2 oz mixed candy peel
2 oz sugar
2 eggs, beaten

Place yeast in water with tsp of sugar to activate, stir and put aside. In a second large bowl, put the flour, add the butter and rub it into the flour to form sandy crumbs. Work quickly before the butter gets too warm and melts rather than crumbs. Add the peel and raisins and 2 ozs of the sugar to the flour mixture and stir.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the beaten eggs and the yeast mixture, then work the whole thing into a soft dough.

Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 10 minutes until smooth and pliable, then place the dough back into the bowl, cover with a clean towel and allow it to rest and rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size (about an hour).

When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down, divide it in half and  and knead each half for a few minutes, then form each into a round and place on a greased baking sheet, cover and allow to rise another hour.

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes until uniformly browned.

My Irish father used to make parkin around this time of year. Parkin is a moist, dark, sticky spice cake; it improves with age and keeps well. It's a real treat to serve with tea on a crispy Autumn night.
Since I detest copying recipes, here is a link for a delectable parkin similar to what my Daddy made:

So sit back and enjoy!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Thoughts On Death And Samhain

There is a movement afoot in the end-of- life care community to introduce the concept of dying as a transition to the general public. This is certainly not anything new, as it is a concept shared by many spiritual traditions. The core of this concept is that death is simply another stage of life, a threshold stage where the living crossover to the afterlife ( whatever you think that is). There are many theories about the afterlife which is  influenced by religious dogma, culture and society. This concept makes clear that although what we perceive as the life force that animates the physical body ceases to exist, the spiritual element, that is, the soul, lives on in entheric form. Some religions teach that the devout dead go to live with the Divine ( or a form/place unique to their understanding of the subject). Others believe the dead go into a type of healing stasis before making the journey to that place, or reincarnating. And finally, a growing number of individuals believe death is a state of nothingness.

Although the majority of mainstream Christians believe their immortal soul goes to Heaven to spend Eternity with their God, typically, the Bible offers conflicting verses: Job 19:25, the verses famously used by Christian clergy at funerals," I know that my Redeemer lives and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” While all that is actually stated in this verse by Job is that he is aware that he will not return to this familiar mortal life, and nothing about the content of that existence, these verses are used in collaboration with others to prove a continuation of the spirit after death. Job 14:21 is quite different, as it says: “His sons come to honor, and he does not know it...” To many, this text is clear: there is no consciousness after death. Ecclesiastes 9:5 states..." For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost." The writer not only states that the dead know nothing, but that they have no additional benefit from this world, and that they are forgotten by the living. These are the verses that Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses often use as proof that death is final until Jesus makes his long awaited return to Earth. The Bible is often confusing and contradictory, and to be quite honest, so are most other sacred text. I have personally come to believe this is intentional, because the Divine wants us to be seekers, to explore and make our own decisions out of the many varied sources available to us.. The Mystery is just that-a mystery.

I believe the trend of thinking of dying as a stage of Life is a healthy one because we have become so disconnected from that which used to be a part of the everyday. Life was difficult and death was a fact. People, animals...everything eventually died. There was not a big bunch of hoopla about it; if someone passed away,  family, friends and community came together and did what needed to be done. Someone cleaned the body and dressed it, someone else sewed a shroud or made a coffin, there might have been some sort of ritual or religious service, and then the body was buried. That was that and back to business after a couple of days because life, as they say, goes on. The whole scenario was repeated with each successive death, and everyone instinctively knew what needed to be done. There was a well rehearsed routine within the community: when an individual became terminally ill or grew old and neared the end of their existence, family provided primary care and friends pitched in to help, because this type of thing affected everyone. When the death occurred, everyone knew there were certain things to be done and those tasks were delegated. The death and subsequent after care of the body was not given over to outsiders, mainly because there was no one else.Professional care was unheard of. The funeral industry as we know it didn't exist until relatively recently. Embalming was not a common practice until the Civil War, when field surgeons or others with quasi-medical training prepared bodies with preservatives for transport so families could see their loved one one more time before burial. This changed the public mindset about dying and death drastically and also created quite a few taboos, while either lending credence or discrediting others.

But what does all this have to do with the ancient Celtic holiday/season of Samhain?

The answer is: much more than you would think.

Death has always been Life's greatest mystery.There are more unanswered questions and more taboos and customs centered around  death than anything else that befalls humans. It happens to all of us eventually, yet most individuals are at a loss when dealing with its effects and aftereffects. The traditions and rites surrounding Samhain give us a foundation to build on so we are better able to not only cope with the death of  those we love, but our own.

In order to lay this foundation, we need a few tools from history...
"Samhain" is a Celtic word loosely translated to mean "final harvest"; each Celtic country has a slightly different pronunciation or spelling of the word. The final harvest followed that of grain and vegetables. Quite often it is referred to as "the meat harvest" because the festival took place at a time of the year when grazing animals were brought down from the higher elevations and the herds culled.The meat was cured ( usually through salting or smoking), or in some areas of extended cold during Winter, it was frozen. The animals that were spared were blessed by driving them between fires or went through a rite intended to protect them from disease or maleficent spirits. Bonfires were lit on hillsides for the same purpose- to ward away any spirits that might bring bad fortune. Some believed the souls of the recent dead stayed hidden in the woods near the place where they died before going to a place of rest, and the bonfires were  used to  either drive them away or guide them along their journey. There are many stories concerning local customs. Samhain, to be sure, was a spiritual and magickal time, but what it wasn't was a holiday dedicated to "Samhain, the Lord of Death" because scholars of ancient Celtic history and mythology agree that there is no proof that a god named Samhain ever existed. To my own knowledge, there is no god in the Irish/Scot/English/Manx or Welsh pantheon with a name even close to Samhain. In fact, the only two historical references found by Professor Ronald Hutton are credited  to Charles Vallency's series of books in 1770 and again in a book by Godfrey Higgins in 1827, and both references are fleetingly brief.

For many NeoPagans, no matter their chosen tradition, Samhain is the most important Sabbat on the Wheel of the Year (calendar). It is a time to communicate with their Beloved Dead and to welcome them into their homes. It is a time to renew memory of those who have crossed the Veil and to meld with them spiritually. It is said that which is remembered lives; continually calling forth those in blessed memory during this season makes this so. Sharing a meal with them during the Dumb Supper or simply laying out food as an offering is a powerful bond for both the Living and the Dead. My fondest memories and the majority of my deepest friendships all began with the sharing of  a place at the table, a bit of cheese and wine, or a cup of tea. Food is one of life's necessities because we are nourished and sustained by it.Offerings of food has been a part of spiritual practice in many cultures.

Calling the Beloved Dead to you, creating a visualization or meditative space- what the Scots call Kything- is a favorite form of connection for me, at Samhain and other times. This has become especially important as a practice  to me because I now live in a different part of the country than where my family is buried, and a several friends who have crossed the Veil chose forms of disposition of their remains other than burial. Creating a cast circle and calling them into sacred space is comfortable and comforting; it is a place to be together and speak through our hearts.

Samhain is also the time when I remind myself who I am and what my purpose in this life is. It may sound corny, but because of all the imagery that surrounds Halloween/Samhain night, I feel a particularly open to my personal witchiness. I know that I am a witch 24/7, but on this night that is not a typical night, at a time when we sit on the threshold, I Am Witch. Power of suggestion, perhaps, but that's how it is.

In the not so distant past, this sort of connection was not saved for a special day once a year. It was practiced everyday. Everyone spoke to the dead. Everyone spoke to their ancestors. It was not odd and no one thought you were becoming unhinged. It was something you instinctively did because you grew up thinking that way. People consulted their ancestors and the Beloved Dead for everyday matters because they believed they were just a step beyond known consciousness. Death was not a final separation, but a transition to a different level of existence. How wise our fore bearers were. How wise indeed.

[ For your further consideration read Christian Day's Witches Book of the Dead]