The Scary Herbs of Halloween
By Joanna Poncavage
It’s a dark night in autumn. Days are becoming shorter and colder. Harvest time is ending, and pantries are being stocked with fruits and nuts for winter. Inside, beside a warm fire, an old uncle tells ghost stories. Firelight gleams on a bowl of red apples, ready for fortune telling and games. Spiced cider flows, and young people, some wearing odd costumes, dance under the flickering light of turnip lanterns.
Many customs of the holiday we call Halloween date to traditions across prehistoric Europe. But turnip lanterns, at least in the United States, have been replaced by easier-to-carve pumpkins, with—let’s face it—more impressive, large, orange shapes. A glowing turnip or pumpkin, however, has the same purpose: to drive away the darkness, scare away the spooks, and light the way to the next party.
Centuries ago, when rooms were illuminated by fire, Europe’s inhabitants were farmers or herders whose lives depended on knowing the rhythms of the year. Halloween (or Samhain, as it once was called) falls on the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. According to the Celtic calendar, which began its holidays on the eve before, Halloween was the start of the new year.
“To understand the significance of these seasonal festivals, we need to step back in time for a moment, closer to the food production cycle than most of us are today,” says Bettina Arnold, co-director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Celtic Studies. Certain food plants had important ties to the holiday’s meaning.
First the Apple
Native to eastern Turkey and southwestern Russia, apples have a long relationship with civilization and its myths and symbols. As members of the rose family, apples and their flowers have associations with Venus, goddess of love and fertility.
Poised on the threshold of the new year, Halloween was viewed as a time when it was possible to see into the future, and fortune telling often involved love and marriage predictions. An apple peel thrown over the shoulder, for instance, could predict the first letter of a true love’s name. Peeling an apple in front of a mirror by candlelight might reveal an image of a lover. And the first person to bite an apple floating in a dish of water would be the first to wed (not to mention that apple bobbing might provide quite an opportunity for real-time flirting).
Grown from seed, apples tend to revert to wild species with small, sour fruit. Gradually, over many thousands of years, improved selections were preserved by grafting. Carried by traders, invaders and Romans into Europe, apples were brought to the New World by the first colonists in the 1600s, and the first orchard was said to be planted near Boston in 1625.