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In the October 1979 issue of Food & Wine, Sybil Leek, the bestselling author of Diary of a Witch, shared her expertise in an article called "Merry Meet, Merry Part: The Foremost Witch of the Western World Gives Tips on Halloween Entertaining".
It is only in recent times that Halloween — the Eve of All Saints Day — has been reduced to a children's festival celebrated almost exclusively in the United States as an evening of "trick or treat." In this country there is little left to associate it with a religious tradition predating Christianity — unless of course you are a member of the Old Religion commonly called witchcraft, but more correctly named Wicca. To us, Halloween is a double festival of fire and remembrance of the dead, as well as the Celtic New Year's Eve.
Throughout Europe, Halloween commemorates the transition from autumn to winter, when the spirits of the dead return to earth to visit those they love and warm themselves at the ritual bonfire. Halloween is also an appropriate time for predicting the events of the coming year. Originally bonfires were lit in a ritualistic attempt to help the dying sun, whose rays grow feeble at this time of year when the human psyche is at its lowest ebb. Through ritual dancing, meditation, and chanting, witches are able to renew their psychic force and physical energy, and return to their everyday work rejuvenated in mind, body, and spirit. Nowhere in the world is Halloween celebrated more seriously than in the Wiccian ceremonies in my old home in the New Forest of Hampshire, England. On this night, members of the four oldest covens in England make their way to a secret place in the forest to celebrate the New Year in a solemn festival of bonfires, cauldrons, swords, athalmes (ceremonial knives), and incense, followed by a feast.
A conscientious witch starts preparations for the festival the day before. On October 30, the food is prepared and the witch fasts from midnight until the feast on Halloween, meanwhile sustaining herself on ritual tea made from a combination of herbs: vervain, rue, St. John's wort, mint, lavender, lemon balm, orange and lemon rind, yarrow, ivy, violets, dried rosehips, cranberries, and rose petals. picked at the last Beltane, or Fire Sabbat. On the eve of the festival she bathes in hyssop before donning the traditional long, black, hooded robe worn during the ceremony. (The history of hyssop is remarkable because it was a herb sacred to pagan religions, and yet it has been used by orthodox churches. When Westminster Abbey in London was consecrated, hyssop was used to cleanse the altar, and the Trappists and other monks use it in the preparation of liqueurs.) Hyssop was used by ancient Egyptians to cleanse lepers, and it is mentioned in many herbals, as well as in the Bible, as a purifier. The Greeks regarded it as a holy herb for cleaning their temples and other sacred places. In the New Forest ceremonies, each witch takes a few leaves of hyssop to the secret place in the forest and scatters them in the circle where the religious ceremony takes place.
Getting to the site of the "Horsa" Coven, to which I belong, was quite a problem when I was young. Not only did we have to walk many miles, we also had to carry the ritual tools, the cauldron, and all the food and wine. After the witchcraft laws were repealed some twenty-five years ago, it was easy enough to take a car part of the way and perhaps walk only a mile. Since then the world has become more conscious of Wicca as a religion. but the inner ritual of the four Great Sabbats held each year still remains a secret. There is a mystical veil spread over the ceremonies which can be penetrated only by those initiated into the religion. In America, Wicca is more open to the public. and the Sabbat is just as likely as not to be celebrated in a private house, a garden, or in an outdoor lot. Each Sabbat has its own type of food indigenous to the area where the Sabbat is celebrated.
Because the New Forest witches are country people, the food is not elaborate, although it has to fulfill certain requirements as far as the ingredients are concerned, and it must be easy to transport. The dishes are quite appropriate for anyone who wants to celebrate Halloween at home, not as a religious festival, but as a time when neighbors, friends, and relations can gather to have a good time. Our typical New Forest feast for Samhain, the winter Sabbat, consists of Hermes Pasties, Thyme Pudding (a suet pudding flavored with thyme and served either hot or cold), Moon Maiden Delight for dessert, and Coriander Comfits. Traditionally we make Beetroot Wine long before the Sabbat, but any good, full-blooded red wine would be appropriate.
Wiccians anticipated the Women's Liberation movement centuries ago, as ours is a matriarchal religion. This does not mean that the woman dominates, but that she is known and respected as a female through whom the species is propagated. We divide the year into two segments, and Halloween is the point of transition, when the High Priestess and the female members of the coven are not expected to do as much work as the High Priest and the males. It is a time when Hermes the Hunter, representing the male element in the polarity of life, takes over a survival of the era when Halloween signaled the time for the male to go into the forest to provide food for his family. The Hermes Pasties are shaped like half-moons. the shape of the pouch carried by Hermes the Hunter, and are the kind of food a woman would still supply for a hunter. Because venison and hare provide meat for the winter, we use either of these as the main ingredient for the pasties, although lamb, pork, ham, or beef can be substituted for pasties that are equally delicious.
All the vegetables are winter crops which are available in profusion at this time of the year. Parsley is never used to garnish dishes, for as everyone knows. parsley keeps witches away. Instead, we use the green tops of celery, which is in its prime in October. sufficiently touched by frost to make it crisp. Pasties have the advantage of being palatable whether they are served hot or cold. Since Halloween in the New Forest is generally chilly, we carry them in a "hay" box. Few people use them these days, but a hay box is simply a well-made wooden box stuffed with clean, sweet-smelling hay into which the pasties are put and then covered by a cloth: the hay keeps them warm. Since the fire made within the circle is used for the ritual, we stamp it out at the end of the ceremony, and generally, people are too hungry to want to make another fire, although the pasties would heat up if placed on a stone in the center of the smoldering embers.
We use herbs profusely in all the Sabbat foods. Thyme is used because it keeps the wits alert and enables the person eating it to choose his words well. If lamb is to be used, it is not unusual for the family of a witch to raise a lamb, feeding it on thyme so that the meat is aromatically flavored. Thyme is regarded as a symbol of strength, courage, and bravery. In Greece the herb was used as a compliment to feminine graces. A beloved lady was said to be "sweet as thyme" and this seems very appropriate to witches, who see the Mother Goddess as the most beloved of women. Sage is included in Sabbat foods because according to ancient herbal lore, it retards the rapid deterioration of the flesh and dispels fears, of old age. And because it has a symbolic link with reincarnation, basil is generally used only at the Halloween feast. It is particularly appropriate to the sign of Scorpio, ruled by Mars: the biting sting of Scorpio and the fieriness of Mars give it a dramatic quality. It is also said to draw out poison from the person eating it — poison in the Wiccian sense — is associated with jealousy and evil thoughts from which we purge ourselves during the ceremony. Basil is often put on the breasts of the dead to protect them. (The French call basil "herbes royale.") It should never be used as profusely as sage and thyme.
Moon Maiden Delight is a pudding containing fruit juice, hazelnut, and honey and made from Irish moss or carrageen, an edible seaweed which can be picked up on the shore, including the coast bordering the New Forest. Apart from the fact that it is a great cleanser of the digestive system, it has the unique advantage of making a pudding as light as Jell-O which won't lose its shape while traveling, nor will it melt away. Wiccians garnish it with apple sections cut into half-moons to represent the three faces of Diana, the moon goddess.
We make Beetroot Wine because beets grow well in the area, and preparing the wine does not require expensive paraphernalia. It can be drunk as new wine, but it comes to full flavor if stored for a year or more. Served hot. sprinkled with nutmeg and cinnamon, it is guaranteed to make a person sleep well and have pleasant dreams. When I was young we used to serve the wine in metal tankards. and heat it by plunging a red-hot poker into it. The longer beetroot wine is kept, the richer the taste and, alas, the harder it may be to walk home.
No Halloween Sabbat feast would be complete without Coriander Comfits. These delicious morsels are generally handed round as members of the coven say their farewells and start on the journey home. Coriander is a very ancient herb, cultivated extensively in the gardens of Egypt thousands of years before the birth of Christ. It was among the funeral offerings left in the tombs, and is thus very appropriate for Halloween, with its association with the spirits of the dead. Yet it has a link with the living, too — it is said to bestow immortality on those who eat it. Wiccians accept reincarnation as a fact, not a theory, and reincarnation is a form of immortality since the spirit cannot die. Coriander takes its name from the Greek word koris, meaning "bug.'' It performs its own act of reincarnation as it transforms itself from a stinking weed to a plant bearing fragrant seed whose distinctive aromatic flavor emerges after the death of the plant. Coriander tastes to me like a combination of sage and lemon rind. The hazelnuts used in the comfits grow profusely in the hedgerow of the New Forest. They have a milky quality which is good for coughs that can easily develop in the cool air of Halloween night.
If you want to have a Halloween party with a different flavor, do your own magical trick in the kitchen, and provide treats for your friends. When they leave, remember to give them the traditional Wiccian valedictory: "Merry Meet. Merry Part."