Samhain was the ancient Celtic New Year’s Eve that evolved into today’s Halloween celebrations so of course, the first day of the Celtic year is November 1st. Pity our poor ancestors who were isolated from other cultures and only got to celebrate one New Year a year, whereas today we live in a more connected and diverse world where we can enjoy different cultures’ New Year celebrations throughout the year. So how does one properly celebrate Celtic New Year the Irish way? By predicting what will happen of course.
While Halloween and Jack-o-lanterns are more well-known Irish gifts to the world, barm brack has a lower profile. The reasons for that are mysterious. It is a delicious, round loaf of light fruit bread. Now in our liability conscious world, it is sold minus the best bits – the wee tokens that foretell what will happen in the coming year. Traditionally, tokens such as coins and rings were baked into the loaf. If you got a token in your slice of brack, it told you what to expect in the coming year. A coin means prosperity, and a bit of cloth represents the rags of poverty. A ring is for romance, and a thimble if for another year of being single.
Among many of the Irish gifts of foresight or fortune telling are taken seriously, even today. A generation or so ago, reading tea leaves was another popular form of divination – or an entertaining way to wind up your friends, depending on who you ask. After drinking nearly all of a cup of tea brewed with loose leaves, the leaf reader would swirl the last bit of tea around the cup and quickly empty it into the saucer, pause, and then turn the cup upright again. The wet tea leaves stuck to the bottom of the cup can, like clouds, look like different shapes to different people. Those shapes are supposed to symbolize things in the past, present and future.
Omens were very important to the ancient Irish – and to plenty of more modern Irish people too. Irish folklore is full of superstitions about what various things mean. It’s very good luck for a bride to see or hear a cuckoo bird on the way to her wedding. Bees were considered omens too. If a bee buzzed at the window, it meant a visitor was coming, and if one came into the house, it foretold of future wealth.
Save the champagne and dancing for January, but in November you can try your hand at making barm brack with traditional tokens and maybe even a few you devise yourself. Invite a few friends over, get out the good tea set and have some fun trying your hand at the Irish gifts of divination. If you see a bee buzzing around the door when they arrive, don’t be in such a hurry to shoo it away. Who says you can only celebrate the New Year once a year?