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Image by Kate Geraghty

Image by Kate Geraghty

My first job in Cornwall was at Cornish Orchards in Duloe, working on the production room floor. It was hard work, pressing, bottling, pasteurizing and labeling juice and cider, but the fantastic camaraderie made the time pass quickly and my workmates gave me a crash course in Cornish life and Cornish humour for which I will always be grateful.

The best task I was given was during the first (and only) autumn I worked there. I was presented with a recipe, a box of oranges, a peeler, numerous bags of herbs and a hosepipe. I was then directed to a large heated vat, instructed to fill it with water and add the appropriate amounts of herbs according to the instructions and the peel from the box of oranges and stir. The result, some hours later, was a steaming cauldron of amazingly scented liquid, which was to be the liquor for that year’s batch of the Cornish Orchards Wassail, which is a spiced Cornish cider. Served gently warmed, there’s nothing to beat it in October when the nights are drawing in and there’s a definite chill in the air (other fine apple juice and cider producers and purveyors are available, but this one will always be my favourite!).

Cornwall has a long and established tradition of orchards and apple traditions, and in the very west of the Duchy, the time around Hallowe’en was known as Allantide. This was originally a early Christian festival linked to a little known Cornish saint, St Allan. Great “Allan markets” would be held, at which it was customary to purchase large, red, polished apples known as “Allan apples”. These would then be given to loved ones as tokens of good luck. Children would sleep with them under their pillows, and older girls would hope to dream of the person they might one day marry. The St Just Feast was known by many as “Old Allantide” and was the most important festivity of the year until well into the 20th century. Allantide divination and games were prevalent, one of these involved nailing together two pieces of wood in a cross formation, hanging this from a ceiling whilst suspending apples from the wood and lighting candles which were fixed on top of the wood. The somewhat masochistic game was to catch the apples in your mouth, whilst avoiding bumping the structure too much – the penalty of being dripped with hot wax was ever-present!

In Celtic philosophy the celebration of Hallowe’en is actually the celebration of the ancient time of year known as Samhain. It is believed that Samhain was the end of the Celtic year, and as with all Celtic festivals, was observed from sunset the day before. So the Christianised “All Hallows Evening” or “Hallowe’en” as it became, is the night before Samhain.

This was Celtic New Years’ Eve, and whilst you may reasonably expect this to be an occasion for a knees up, it was frequently a more somber affair. Known as Nos Calan Gwaf or “Winter Eve” in revived Cornish, it is the time of year for remembrance, and it’s a happy coincidence that Remembrance Sunday usually occurs not long after.

This time of the year marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. It is a time of death and rebirth, where Celtic people remember those loved ones who have passed away, and take time to thank the spirits of our ancestors. There are old stories of celebratory meals being held where a place at the table would be set in honour of those family members who had died in the preceding year. I love the idea of this, it’s a very symbolic way of marking respect and stopping for a moment to consider all that’s happened in the preceding year without the manufactured festivity that can sometimes be the prevalent at our contemporary New Years Eve revels.

It is also the time where it is said that the “veils between the worlds become thin” and it’s easy to see how that has been exaggerate red and commercialized into the great confection that we know as Hallowe’en today, but it’s also important to understand this is rooted in a very important tradition. As is common in their festivities, Celtic people would mark this time of year by lighting fires – bonfires and the like (no co-incidence also that Guy Fawkes Night is only a few days after) – in order to ensure the return of the Sun and ward off malevolent spirits, and I think we can revive aspects of these traditions in our own small ways. The (safe) lighting of candles in our homes as the day closes is a reassuring and easy way to do this, and it connects us back to the time of our ancestors.

Another excellent way to indulge in some seasonal revelry is to attend Lowender Peran, Cornwall’s international festival of Celtic culture. Held in Newquay on 14 – 18 October, this highly-respected event is jam-packed with fabulous events, including displays of music, dance, language, sport and even a silent disco! It’s a very inclusive atmosphere – don’t miss the family day on Sunday – and an important event on the Cornish cultural calendar.

So whether you’re here for half term and looking for some Hallowe’en fun, or a native looking for a way to connect to your roots, pour yourself a glass of something warming and delicious, cosy up in front of an open fire, maybe read a Cornish ghost story (there are loads of them) and draw on the regenerative power of this wonderful season.

At a glance:

Lowender Peran


Cornish Orchards


Bewnans Kernow


© Sally Bell 2015

Originally published in Cornwall Today www.cornwalltoday.co.uk