Today is Hop-tu-Naa (pronounced “hop to nay”), a Celtic festival celebrated on the Isle of Man that is part of the general tradition of Samhain, found throughout the Celtic world in one form or another. Samhain is related to the Christian tradition of Allhallowtide because of the collision of cultures historically, but they are separate strands that have become confused over time. Here is my post from last year: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/allhallowtide/
Hop-tu-Naa (and Samhain) marks the turning of the year from the summer season to the winter season, and so has some of the feeling of New Year’s Eve about it. For modern Hop-tu-Naa, children dress up and go from house to house with the hope of being given sweets or money, much like Halloween. The children carry carved turnip lanterns (which are known as “moots” by the Manx) and sing Hop-tu-Naa songs.
Different versions of Hop-tu-naa songs in Manx were supposedly sung in different areas of the island at one time. “Jinnie the Witch” is a more modern Manx English song, which was sung around the Douglas area at one point. The common modern song used for Hop-tu-Naa nowadays is as follows :
My mother’s gone away
And she won’t be back until the morning
Jinnie the Witch flew over the house
To fetch the stick to lather the mouse
My mother’s gone away
And she won’t be back until the morning
Here’s a rather indifferent video that gives some idea of how the song goes. You’ll see it’s a bit tuneless:
There are regional varieties of how turnips should be carved for Hop-tu-Naa, with variations focusing on which way up the turnip is and the nature of the decorations. It is believed that turnip-lanterns do not date earlier than the start of the 19th century because turnips were not introduced until the end of the previous century. In the past children would bring the stumps of turnips with them and batter the doors of those who refused to give them any money. This practice appears to have died out.
Some of the older customs on the Isle of Man (and elsewhere in the Celtic world) are now attached to the January New Year. Hop-tu-Naa used to be a time for prophesying, weather prediction, and fortune-telling. Last thing at night, the ashes of a fire were smoothed out on the hearth to receive the imprint of a foot. If, next morning, the track pointed towards the door, someone in the house would die, but if the footprint pointed inward, it indicated a birth.
A cake was made, called Soddag Valloo or Dumb Cake, because it was made and eaten in silence. Young women and girls all had a hand in baking it on the red embers of the hearth, first helping to mix the ingredients, flour, eggs, eggshells, soot, and salt, and kneading the dough. The cake was divided up and eaten in silence and, still without speaking, all who had eaten it went to bed, walking backwards, expecting and hoping to see their future husbands in a dream or vision. The future husband was expected to appear in the dream and offer a drink of water.
Another reported means of divination was to steal a salt herring from a neighbor, roast it over the fire, eat it in silence and retire to bed, or to hold a mouthful of water in the mouth and a pinch of salt in each hand listening to a neighbor’s conversation. The first name mentioned would be that of a future spouse. As with many calendar customs, there’s no way of knowing now how common or widespread such systems of divination were.
Many groups of people continue the tradition of singing “around the houses” with turnip lanterns. In addition to this, many Hop-tu-Naa events take place across the Isle of Man each year, most of which include competitions for turnip carving and the singing of traditional songs. Manx National Heritage sponsors annual events at various locations. The National Folk Museum at Cregneash hosts an event to teach the traditional Hop-tu-Naa song and help people to carve turnips.
Traditional food for Hop-tu-Naa includes mrastyr – potatoes, parsnips, and fish mashed up with butter. Any leftovers from this evening meal would be left out with crocks of fresh water for the fairies. Toffee would also be made, with just sugar and water, as a communal activity on the evening of hop-tu-naa. My sister and I sometimes made basic sugar toffee when we were kids. I’ll describe that in another post – some time. Let’s start, instead, with mrastyr. In fact let’s begin by breaking it down a little. A mix of flaked fish and mashed potato is a common, old fashioned, British fish “pie” which I like a great deal and make quite often. There’s nothing much to it. The following amounts are for example only, and are meant to give approximate ratios. I don’t measure anything.
Begin by peeling, dicing, and poaching about 1 lb of potatoes until they are very soft. At the same time poach ½ lb of firm fish until they are just cooked and will flake easily. Cod or salmon work well. When I make this dish in England I go to a fishmonger’s and buy their fish scraps (that is, trimmings) because they are relatively cheap and often have a good selection of quality fish which are the leftovers from cutting fillets.
Drain the potatoes and mash them with about 4 oz of butter. Then flake the fish, making sure that it retains some texture. Mix the fish in with the mashed potato and place it all in a casserole. Dot the top with butter and place in a hot oven (450°F) until the top is crisp and golden – about 20 minutes.
Now let’s talk about Manx variations. First, you can make a mash of equal proportions of potatoes and parsnips (or turnips) – same plan of action. Peel the vegetables, dice them, and poach them in water until they are very soft. Then drain them and mash them together with butter. This combination is a nice change from plain mashed potato. Freshly ground black pepper and chopped fresh parsley make a good addition.
All right . . . now to mrastyr. I’ve never made it, but the idea should be clear. I’d go with 1 lb each of potatoes, parsnips, and firm fish. Make a parsnip/potato mash and fold in flaked, poached fish. Place in a casserole, dot with butter, and bake until the top is golden. You’ll figure it out. I wouldn’t add much in the way of seasoning. This is meant to be a simple dish, and it’s easy to mask the delicate flavors of the vegetables and fish. Butter is really all you need.