Oct 312016


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.

hop5 hop2

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.

Oct 312015


Today begins Allhallowtide. Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, or the Hallowmas season, is the triduum encompassing the Western Christian observances of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day, and runs from October 31 to November 2. Allhallowtide is primarily a time to remember the dead. The present date of Hallowmas (All Saints’ Day) and thus also of its vigil (Hallowe’en) was established by Pope Gregory III (731-741) and was made a time of obligation throughout the Frankish Empire by Louis the Pious in 835.

The Christian attitude towards the death of martyrs is first exemplified in the New Testament, which records that after the beheading of St. John the Baptist, his disciples respectfully buried him. Stephen was likewise “given a Christian burial by his fellow-Christians after he had been stoned to death by a mob.” Two of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers, Ephrem the Syrian and John Chrysostom, wrote about the importance of honoring the dead; the theologian Herman Heuser writes that in the early Church, the feast days of the martyrs were local observances, with churches being built on those sites where their blood was shed. Frances Stewart Mossier explains that this changed during the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, saying that:

This arrangement worked very well at first, but soon there were more martyrs than there were days in the year, and so one day was set apart in honor of them all, and called All Saints’ Day. This took place about the year A.D. 610. The day of the year on which the festival first occurred was the first of May, and it was not till two hundred years after that it was changed to Nov. 1, the day we now observe. The Christians of those times were in the habit of sending the night before All Saints’ Day in thinking over the good and helpful lives of those in whose honor the day was kept and in praying that they might be like them. Services were held in the churches, and candles and incense burned before the pictures and statues of the saints. It was to them one of the holiest, most significant days of all the year.

Following the establishment of All Hallows’ Day and its vigil, All Hallows’ Eve in the 8th century, Odilo of Cluny established a day to pray for All Souls (all the dead, not just martyrs), forming the third day of the triduum of Allhallowtide.


All Hallows’ Eve (today) is the first day of Allhallowtide. According to some scholars, the Christian Church absorbed some Celtic practices associated with the Celtic celebration of Samhain, a day associated with the lifting of barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead. The idea was to Christianize the celebration in order to ease the Celts’ conversion to Christianity. But other scholars, including myself, maintain that the Christian observance of All Hallows’ Eve arose completely independently of Samhain. However, some aspects of the two celebrations have merged. All Hallows’ Eve was not originally associated with witches and ghosts, but Samhain was, and are now part of Hallowe’en.

The Christian Church traditionally observed Hallowe’en through a vigil when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself. This church service is known as the Vigil of All Hallows or the Vigil of All Saints. After the service, suitable festivities and entertainments often follow, as well as a visit to the graveyard or cemetery, where flowers and candles are often placed in preparation for All Saints’ Day (All Hallows).


Allhallowtide is associated with a number of sweet cakes worldwide. Today when I was grocery shopping (in Mantua) I came across these pan dei morti – a kind of raisin filled soft biscuit laced with ginger and sweet spices.


A soul cake is a small round cake which is traditionally made for All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead in the Christian tradition. The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers “for the souls of the givers and their friends”. The practice in England dates to the medieval period, and was continued there until the 1930s, by both Protestants and Catholics. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, such as Portugal (where it is known as Pão-por-Deus), and in other countries, it is seen as the origin of the practice of trick-or-treating. In Lancashire and in the North-east of England they are also known as Harcakes. The tradition of giving soul cakes was celebrated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.


The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows’ Eve as an offering for the dead, and on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day children would go “souling”, or ritually begging for cakes door to door. In 1891, Rev. M. P. Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire, recorded the song traditionally sung during souling, from a little girl at the local school. Two years later, the text and tune were published by folklorist Lucy Broadwood, who commented that souling was still practiced at that time in Cheshire and Shropshire. Other versions of the traditional soul-cake song were collected in various parts of England until the 1950s. The Watersons recorded one in 1965 on their album Frost and Fire, which was immensely popular among folkies of my generation.

Here’s a recipe for soul cakes from Shropshire


Shropshire Soul Cakes


2 ½ cups (340 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
¾ cup (170 g) granulated sugar
¾ cup (170 g) butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
¼ tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp of apple cider vinegar


Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles cornmeal. You can do this very quickly by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor.

Add the egg and vinegar and mix with a wooden spoon until it all comes together into a ball. Cover the bowl and chill for at least 20 minutes.

Lightly flour a clean, flat surface and roll the dough out to ¼-inch thickness. Cut into large rounds using a cookie cutter. Cut or press a cross shape into the cakes. Place the cakes on to the baking sheets and press raisins into the top of the cakes, if desired. Gather the scraps together and roll again until all the dough has been cut into cakes.

Bake, one sheet at a time, for 12-15 minutes, or until the cake tops are lightly golden.

Yield: 24 cakes