Monday, October 31, 2022

Notes About Halloween!

I like Halloween, I always have and still do. Here is some basic data on this wonderful festival. The name Halloween is a contraction of the words 'All Hallows Eve.' This is a name created by Pope Boniface IV who proclaimed it 'All Saints Day' in AD 609.  Hallow is an archaic word meaning 'Saint' or 'holy person.' The plural is Hallows.  

From this we get to All Hallows Eve on 31 October and on 1 November we have All Hallows Day.  But, there was already an important festival at this time. In the Isles, there was Samhain (said Sow-in). Samhain was a festival that dates to early pagan times and it was an old festival already when Pope Boniface attempted to claim it. In Gaelic, Halloween is still known by its real name, Samhain and Halloween night is Oiche Shamhna (said ee-ah how-na).

Samhain has a folk etymology that goes back to the middle Gaelic word Samain (also said Sow-in) meaning summer. But, that is a pseudo etymology, the real origin is from the Proto Celtic word 'Samoni,'which means 'assembly' in this case the gathering of the living and the dead, which happened on 31 October to the daybreak of 2 November. The 1st century BC Gaulish Coligny calendar marks the date. So even in ancient time the Celts already had Samhain as a major festival time.

Samhain was important to the ancient Celts as it marked the change of season, i.e. the start of winter. At this time the cattle herds went from summer pastures to their winter pastures. Very important to the pastoral people in the Isles. On Samhain people gathered, feasted, held contests, and there were rituals associated with this time. This change from light to dark, from summer to winter, marked a time when the portals between worlds, our world and the Otherworld, opened up. Beings and entities from the Otherworld could and did appear and walk about in our world. 

These Otherworld beings included the Síthe (people of the mounds, also known today as the Fairies), the spirits of the dead, including one's ancestors, and other odd entities associated with the Otherworld. From ancient times to the present, it is in this context, that Samhain and 'Halloween' became the festival that we have today in the 21st century. 

carving the Jack o'lantern

The Gaelic people in Ireland and Scotland had many ways to commemorate Samhain. As already mentioned, the were assemblies, feasts, parties, bonfires, etc.  People also practiced seership (divination), and the use of costumes and icons to protect themselves from any malicious entities that came into our world from the Otherworld. 

Dagda, the Gaelic Sky Father, had control over time and the passages from our world to the Otherworld. Dagda is a psychopomp, i.e. a guide to souls to and from the place of the Dead. There were, and still are, bonfires lit up hills and mountains to commemorate Samhain.  These fires were part of the rituals associated with this movement of entities between the world. 

The Gaelic people also made toasts and left offerings to the Síthe. An example is seen in the Hebrides, on the island of the Lewis the population presented 'Seonaidh' with a cup of ale on the eve of Samhain. Seonaidh was a nickname for the Manannán, one of the Síthe, particularly revered in the Hebrides. This practice endured into the 20th century. Seonaidh is a taboo name, i.e. it was thought better not to say Manannán's name out loud. Important members of the Síthe often were known by pet names.  Much like the Síthe themselves were often called Na Daoine Maithe (the good people) rather than their real name.  

painting of Dagda by Howard David Johnson

Samhain/Halloween is a time of heightened spiritual activity, a time when the passages between the worlds opens. It is a time to revere ancestors, to be cognizant of the Síthe.

Guardians of the home 

Samhain was brought to America via the many Irish and Scottish immigrants that came here. It has evolved into the modern Halloween and has become a world wide festival.  It is good to remember its Gaelic origins. Many people, sadly most people, have little or no idea why we have all those curious customs associated with Halloween. The ghosts, the entities of the Otherworld, the feasts, candy, parties, bonfires, etc., have lost their meaning to many in our consumer, materialistic, post modern society. Too many people participate in Halloween not knowing what the festival is and the older spiritual connections. 

I have placed a Jack o'lantern out, and I will welcome trick or treaters to my door. Later tonight I will have a fire in my large firepit, have a salutation to Dagda and my ancestors.  I wish ever one a wonderful Halloween. 

© 2022 Barry R McCain 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Autumn Equinox 2022


The  Autumn Equinox is on 22 September. Where I live in the wooded hills of north Mississippi, it arrives at 8:30 AM.  On the equinox, day and night are of equal length. This even is the start of Autumn. The days begin to grow shorter than the night. It has been noted and celebrated by our ancestors for millenniums. The Harvest Moon is the full moon nearest to the Autumn Equinox. This full moon allowed farmers to use its light to assist in the long hours of harvest. In the Northern Hemisphere our Harvest Moon came on 10 September this year. 

In Gaelic the Autumn Equinox called Cónocht an Fhómhair. This equinox has been celebrated since ancient times. There is a Carn on Loughcrew in County Meath, with a passage grave that has an opening that is aligned with the Autumn Equinox. This structure dates to 3000 BC, some 5000 years plus old. The Carn is called Sliabh na Cailleach and on the morning of the Autumn Equinox a shaft of light enters this ancient tomb. The Autumn Equinox is a day of celebration and ritual. 

Sliabh na Cailleach

View from road going toward Sliabh na Cailleach

The Autumn Equinox is a time to reflect upon our ancestors, to light a fire, and to enjoy a libation as an offering to the old ones. And.. it begins my favourite time of the year. BTW, it was on Sliabh na Cailleach that I had an incident with the Bean Sí Beara.   

© Barry R McCain 2022


Monday, August 1, 2022

Lúnasa 2022

 Today is Lúnasa. Traditionally it is on 1 August, which is around the halfway point between the Summer solstice and Autumn equinox. It is also spelled Lughnasadh (an older spelling in Gaelic), in Scots Gaelic spelled Lùnastal, and in Manx Gaelic, Luanistn. 


Lúnasa is an ancient festival date, even by Gaelic standards, and has been celebrated more than a thousand years before the coming of Christianity to the Isles. It dates to pagan times. 

It was a time of feasts and celebration of the harvest. There were offerings of the 'First Fruits' of the harvest, and a sacrifice of a bull (which was eaten by the people), a ritual dance and play which portrayed the god Lugh seizing the harvest for the tribe. Many activities took place during this time; visits to the holy wells, processions to hill and mountain tops, seer craft, etc.

The festival is linked to Lugh, but it also is connected to Dagda, also known as Crom. Lúnasa is also call Crom Dubh Sunday. I like and keep the old Celtic traditions and festivals. 

The festival is still widely practiced in Ireland and Scotland and by some still, in the Gaelic Diaspora.  It is a rainy day here, so I will light a candle and pour a libation to Dagda, my personal celebration of today.


A Druid

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Imbolc 2022


A Bríd's Cross

Today, at sunset, marks the beginning of the festival of Imbolc. This a Gaelic festival to honour the beginning of Spring and falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The festival is general to Celtic areas, but is perhaps most celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man - which are the Gaelic homelands. It is indeed an ancient celebration and is mentioned in the earliest Gaelic literature, and it was old even at that time. 

In Christian times Imbolc was conflated with the veneration of Saint Bríd. Bríd is also a goddess, a prominent member of the Tuatha Dé, and it is no accident that the Church synchronized Imbolc to Lá Fhéile Bríde (Saint Brid's Day). It was a way to allow the people to continue their ancient custom, but place it into the Judeo-Christian cosmology.

The etymology of Imbolc has several theories, but given its ancient origins, it is most likely from an early proto Celtic word 'embibolgon' which means 'budding.'  And, this is when the first buds on early blooming plants start to show the signs of the growing sunlight at this latitude.

Saint Bríd

There are several customs still observed on Imbolc - visits to Holy Wells, where one walks sunwise, known as Deiseil in Gaelic, around the Holy Well and leaves a Clootie on the Faerie Tree (or bush). A Clootie is a piece of cloth tied to a Faerie Tree. The Clootie is to invoke blessings on home, family, clan, and livestock and fields. The practiced is still done to this day. One will also light a fire, candles or a bonfire, and celebrate with a feast and libations. This was also a time when divination is done. 

In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, there are numerous accounts throughout the centuries to the present, of people celebrating this festival. Saint Bríd is a very thinly Christianized form of the older goddess Bríd and the saint retains many of the attributes of the older goddess.

So I wish you all a Merry Imbolc and a Happy Saint Bríd's Day.  Light a candle tonight after sundown, and have a glass of drink and salute the growing daylight and wish the best to your family and loved ones.     

© Barry R McCain 

Finding the McCains

Thursday, January 6, 2022

6 January, The Old Christmas


6 January is Old Christmas. This is Christmas day by the Julian Calendar.

The Julian Calendar was developed circa 30 BC and became, more or less, standard by 8 BC.  The Julian Calendar had errors and over time was less accurate.  

In the late 1500s it was a problem and Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar to make it match the solar cycle. The Pope and his advisors, did this by eliminating 11 full days and thus created the Gregorian Calendar.

Several countries did not accept this calendar change, notably the Isles did not.  Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, continued to use the old Julian Calendar. Finally, given that the calendar was hopelessly wrong, the crown adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

In the 1700s many thousands of Irish, Scots, Scots-Irish, and English, were settling in the Colonies. Many of these people, the Anglo-Celts, lived on the frontier. Some did not know of the calendar change and some flat out refused to use the new calendar, so for many early Americans Christmas Day fell on 6 January rather than 25 December. By the 1800s most people accepted the new calendar and used it, a few did not.  In the Southern Uplands and Backsttlements, some people continued to use the Old Christmas, as they felt it was the real Christmas.

Even in the 20th Century some people still kept the Old Christmas.  It was my grandmother McCain that told me about the Old Christmas and she kept it and the new one, meaning she observed by 25 December and 6 January, as Christmas.  I always liked that.  I am keeping up the tradition and I also keep both Christmases. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Two Christmas Cake Finished


Here are the two Christmas cakes with the icing.  One has royal icing and the other fondant. I wanted to do a more ambitious decorating job, but I did not have the things I needed to do so.  

The royal icing one, that's the plain one on the right, has been served.  It is excellent.  Success.  

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Winter Solstice and Io Saturnalia!!!


Father Christmas looking a bit like Saturn here

Today is the Winter Solstice. This is the astronomical first day of Winter and it is the shortest day of the year, in the Northern Hemisphere.  The Winter Solstice has been celebrated and venerated for many thousands of years. 

On the winter's solstice the sun is low in the sky. The sun's path begins northward again and will reach the most northerly point on the summer solstice. If you step out at noon today your shadow will be the longest of the year. 

Saturnalia Holly and Candle

Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Hellenic, etc., people all celebrated the Winter Solstice. Due to the Roman conquest of most of western Europe the Roman Winter Solstice traditions survived in Britain and in much of Europe. In the Roman world the Winter Solstice festival was Saturnalia. Many of the traditions of Saturnalia have endured and have been assimilated into our own Christmas customs. 

The giving of gifts, decorating homes with evergreen boughs, ivy and holly. Candles were given as gifts and used to celebrate the season. 

Saturnalia is named after the god Saturn. The etymology of Saturn is from the Proto Indo European word sewH(r) which means 'seed, bring forth.' Saturn is connected to agriculture, and he is often conflated with the Greek Chronos. The two entities come from a single Indo-European spiritual cosmology concept. While it is a different topic, there is a link between the Spirit of Christmas, or Father Christmas, and the traditions and rituals from Saturnalia. 

During Saturnalia a man was selected to portray Saturn. He was the king of Saturnalia and he encouraged the activities and brought seasonal cheer to the people. He is remarkably like our Father Christmas.  

The proxy for Saturn at the festival

During Saturnalia people would enthusiastically proclaim Io Saturnalia to each other. Even in medieval times Io Saturnalia was a common greeting at Christmas time. 

Saturnalia included the serving of roast pork, which was the traditional sacrifice to the god Saturn. The festival ran from 17 to 23 December.  On 22 of December gifts were given. Common gifts included small figurines called sigillaria, combs, hats, lyres, hunting knives, oil lamps, candles, perfumes, wine cups, spoons, writing tablets, dice and other gaming pieces, etc. There were also the Saturnalia treats such as cake. The Saturnalia cake included nuts and fruit and that tradition also has survived in the form of our Christmas Cake.

By the late 4th century, the Christian churches extended their control over Europe and they chose the date of 25 December as their Christmas. This allowed them to incorporate the celebration of Christ's birth with the still popular Saturnalia and other pagan festivals around Europe. It was a clever bit of marketing you might say, and the old traditional pagan Winter Solstice festivals were now linked to the Christian holiday. 

The decorating of homes with winter greenery, lighting of candles, the eating and drinking together, and giving and receiving gifts, are all traditions we still carry out. 

So, a Wonderful Winter Solstice, a Merry Christmas, and also Io Saturnalia, to you all. 

© Barry R McCain 2021


Monday, December 20, 2021

McCain Christmas Cake, an Update

 The McCain Christmas Cake... an update, the marzipan tops put on. 

Two photos of my work this morning.  I made the marzipan and placed it on the now cured fruit cake. I had never made marzipan, nor had I ever placed it on a cake. The first one a little ragged, but still nice looking. The second one nice and neat as I learned from the first one. I am satisfied with them.

I had a wee taste of the marzipan and it is excellent. I made it from fine ground almonds, powdered sugar (i.e. icing sugar), egg whites (pasteurized), almond extract, and a small amount of vanilla extract. The marzipan was easy to make in fact. The two cakes will be iced with royal icing in a couple days, with some seasonal decoration a top.  

© Barry R McCain 2021

Thursday, December 9, 2021

McCain Christmas Cake

A Christmas Cake From Several Years Ago

This is my Irish Christmas Cake. I had several requests for its recipe. However, I am one of those type of cooks that does not use precise measurements. In addition, I am a very good cook of meats and main dishes. I am expert level at smoking beef, pork, etc. I rarely cook anything sweet and so my experience at cooking cakes is that of a rank amateur.  Be that as it may, here is my version of the Irish Christmas Cake.  This type of cake is a fruit and nut cake, which is typical in the Isles (i.e. the UK and Ireland). There are many variations of it, this is a type I have eaten in Ireland. It is still made in Ireland and popular there. 

The ingredients prior to mixing

You soak the fruit, raisins, currants, nuts, lemon zest, orange zest, is a glass bowl to which you add at least a 1/2 cup of Irish whiskey. I also add vanilla and almond extract. I let this concoction soak over night. 

The next day I sat out the eggs, butter, and brown sugar, as I like to work with them at room temperature. 

I cream the butter and sugar well, then add the eggs one at a time. I then fold in the fruit, raisin, and nuts.

I add the spices to the flour along with a pinch of salt. I then fold in the flour to the well mixed butter, sugar, and eggs.  This makes a fairly thick batter. If you feel the batter is too thick, just add some Irish whiskey to it. 

The batter

I use a springform cake pan. I grease the pan with coconut oil, which is thick like butter or lard. Then I double line the pan with parchment paper. I cut rounds for the bottom, and strips for the sides. I use more of the coconut oil to 'glue' the paper down and make it behave.  

Work area, with my notes and Springform pan

I then put the batter in the pan, smooth it down and make it even. Then I put more parchment paper around the outside of the pan (don't need to grease this of course) so that it is several inches above the top of the springform pan and I tie a piece of twine around this to hold it there. 

I place this in the oven. The cooking temperature is 275 Fahrenheit. Depending on your oven, the cake will cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.  You test it by sticking a wooden toothpick in it to see if it comes out clean. You should be able to tell if it is done just by looking at the cake. 

Ready to go into the Oven

The Cake done and cooling

Let it cool a bit, then remove all the parchment paper. Carefully, flip the cake so the bottom is upright. I use a wooden chopstick to poke a good ten holes into the cake, I then do the first feeding, i.e. add about a 1/2 cup of whiskey.  I then wrap the cake in parchment paper and tinfoil and place it in a cake carrier or cake serving dish, the type with a top on it. 

You can feed the cake each week, or more if you like. This makes for a moist cake and a wonderful flavour. 

The two cakes I recently made are now being seasoned, i.e. fed whiskey.  I will not decorate them until the week of Christmas.  Putting icing on this type of Christmas Cake is optional. It is fine to leave it as is, but this year I wanted to do something special. One cake will have a marzipan and royal icing top, the other cake will have a marzipan and fondant top. I will update this blog post with photos of the decorated cakes. 


2 1/2 cups of fruit; I used diced orange peel and apricots on one cake and diced orange peel, apricots, and dried figs on the other. I used the pre diced orange peel you get from your grocery store. 

1 1/2 cups of raisins and or currants.

1 cup of blanched slivered almonds.

zest of an Orange and zest of a Lemon and the juice of each. 

add whiskey and let soak over night. 

2 1/8 cups of all purpose flour, sifted. 

1 cup of almond flour, sifted. 

Salt, a healthy pinch

Spices... All Spice, Nutmeg, ground Cloves, Ginger, Cinnamon, and Mace.  I used at least a heaping teaspoon of each. Probably more of the All Spice, Nutmeg, and Ginger. I did not use as much Cinnamon as it can drown out the other spices I feel. 

5 eggs

2 sticks of butter, use Kerrygold if you have it.

1 cup of Brown Sugar, some recipes use more than this, more like 1 and 1/4 cup, but I feel like this is too much. 

Irish Whiskey as needed 

The history of the Christmas Cake is interesting. First, there is a lot of speculation and theories on the internet and in print on this subject. I will offer a short history here. First of all, the tradition of a cake presentation for the Winter Solstice is old. A cake was done for Saturnalia in ancient Rome. This festival celebrated the Winter Solstice and was dedicated to the god Saturn  (i.e. Cronos). The cake was a fruit and nut cake, probably much like the Italian Pan Forte. A bean was baked into the cake and who ever received the piece with the bean was pronounced Lord of the festivities. He took the place of Saturn that is to say. Over the years Saturnalia morphed into Christmas, but the Saturnalia Cake, or now the Christmas Cake, tradition endured and continued. 

This tradition is related to other 'cakes' that are also called a King Cake and a 12th Night Cake. The Christmas Cake, 12th Night Cake, and King Cake, while different in function these days, do share a common origin. The Saturnalia Cake lived on and was given a Christian context. By the 1500s, well to do folk in the Isles were producing a cake much like our modern Christmas Cake, a dense cake, with fruit, raisins, nuts, etc., and was often topped with a marzipan layer and icing. During Victorian times the Christmas Cake became the institution it is today. 

Merry Christmas and Io Saturnalia and enjoy your Christmas Cake this year. 

© Barry R McCain 2021     

Friday, November 5, 2021

Cracker, An Etymology


From Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, both men carry Gaelic origin surnames, and are archetypal 'Cracker' cowboys.
What is the etymology of the term Cracker?  

We all know what a Cracker was and still is.  It is a Southern Anglo-Celt from the backcountry and Uplands. It is a historical term, but still in use today.  Many were of Scots-Irish origin, but there were also a lot of Crackers who were Irish or Scots in origin.  The term appears in use by the mid-1700s in Colonial America.  An eighteenth-century definition of what a Cracker provides a good description of one from an anglocentric perspective; in 1776 a Colonial official wrote to the earl of Dartmouth:

I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers, a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their place of abode.

Cracker is still a much used term.  Dubious sources, such as Wikipedia, tell us it is a “usually derogatory term for white people.” Wikipedia also offers a proposed etymology of the term coming from the sound of the “whips” used by Southern whites on their livestock. Obviously, this is total nonsense and shows a complete ignorance of Irish and Scottish culture.  

The real story is more complex and comes from Ireland. The original Crackers are associated with free range cattle and were drovers that lived in the backcountry. The original Crackers were generally from Ireland, and as we have mentions, primarily of Scots-Irish ancestry.  That much is on firm ground, but the etymology of the word Cracker is more difficult to deduce, but I believe it is also linked to Ulster.

two Florida Crackers by Frederic Remington

There are several possible etymology origins, the foremost is the Gaelic word Creachadóir.  It is an Ulster Gaelic and Scots Gaelic (Creachadair) word meaning, “raider and freebooter,” but also associated with the free range cattle drovers in Ulster and the wider Gaelic world. Cracker is the anglicized form of Creachadóir. 

A related word is Creach (Ulster Gaelic) which means a “herd of cattle,” and also a “Cattle raid.”  You will also find the word Greigh in Scots Gaelic meaning a “herd of cattle.”  There is also the Scots-Gaelic word Gréighear meaning a “farm grieve.”  (someone who took care of livestock). With all these Gaelic words, there is a connection, i.e. to cattle and cowboys.    

Having stated my opinion of the etymology, I will also mention another etymology for Cracker.  However, I do not think it is correct. 

Another suggested etymology which appears in media  is Cracaire. This Gaelic  word means “talker” or a person that chats a lot and is related to the modern Irish word “Craic” meaning “a gathering where people talk, have refreshments, and have a good time.”  As far as I can tell, the use of Cracaire and Craic are more recent in their use in the Gaelic language and so this is not the etymology of Cracker. And, is also not remotely related to cattle and cattle drovers. 

Arizona Cowboy, Frederic Remington

The salient element is the linking of Crackers to cattle and the drovers, or cowboys. Creach was anglicized as Creacht and was used by the Elizabethan English to describe both a herd of cattle and the drovers (cowboys) of the herd.  These men were also used for raiding parties.  So in actual use a Creacht was both a free range cowboy and raider. Creachadóir is a related word is specifically the word for the cowboy. So Creach and Creachadóir both relate to Cracker. 
In modern Gaelic usage the older meaning of free range cowboy has been dropped and now the definition is “raider and freebooter, ” but in the historical context a cowboy and raider were the same thing. 

We are left with Cracker being an anglicized form of a Gaelic origin word. It could be Creachadóir or it could be from Creach with an English 'er' suffix added.  The two words and concepts are then related and mean cowboys and cattle. I think Creachadóir to be the best etymology. Creachadóir in use in Ireland and Scotland, anglicized as Cracker and brought to the Colonies in the 1700s, by the large influx of Ulster origin settlers to the Southern Uplands and Backsettlements. 

Cowboy, Frederic Remington

Despite Wikipedia and the other pop media, Cracker is not considered derogatory among the Crackers living in the South today. The opposite is true, it is an often used term of ethnic self-description and one of pride. Crackers are considered independent, self-reliant, to act in honorable ways, to be adept at hunting, fishing, to be proficient with weapons, and will not suffer rude behaviour from people.  As the Southern Crackers settled Texas and the Southwest they became the Cowboy, which was just a cultural continuum of their unique lifestyle. 

© 2021 Barry R McCain 

Link:  Finding the McCains