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Colcannon Night

We are at Halloween, the night that is traditionally the end of the harvest and of summer, when the veil between life and death weakens and spirits may walk abroad.

In Ireland, years ago, it was usual to mark the day by serving up the traditional dish of calcannon or colcannon. This was made from potatoes and cabbage, perhaps with other vegetables such as leeks, spinach or hedgerow greens, and with a little butter, cream or bacon fat added.

Because of the association of the dish with Halloween, the day has in a few places been called Colcannon Night instead. It was known as that in Ireland two centuries ago and emigrants took the name to Newfoundland and Labrador. The folklore department at the Memorial University of Newfoundland tells me that it has now died out there and so may not be current anywhere any more.

The first part of the name must surely be related to cole, an old term for any type of brassica, the genus that includes cabbage and cauliflower (the word survives in cole slaw). Some dictionaries suggest that the second part derives from a method of pounding the cabbage — with cannon balls. You may believe that if you like, but it is now more commonly said it comes from the Irish Gaelic cál ceannfhionn (later cál ceannann), meaning white-headed cabbage.

Despite the loss of the term itself from common usage, it is possible that it survives in the term cabbage night, by which in New England the night before Halloween is known. Young people make mischief, sometimes extending to outright vandalism. The Dictionary of American Regional English implies that the name comes from the practice of throwing cabbages and other refuse and finds its first example of cabbage night from as recently as 1975. However, an earlier, intriguing example turned up in a search:

An old gentleman told me that when he was a boy Hallowe’en was often called “cabbage” night, perhaps from the fact that one of the ways of finding one’s true love is to go into a cabbage patch and pull off the heads, those having long, straight roots signifying life partners of fine character, with the course of true love running straight and true; but if a crooked root comes up the reverse is to be expected.

“Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Party Pastimes for the Up-to-date Hostess, by Ellye Howell Glover, 1909. The author (an American about whom I can discover nothing) was a prolific creator of books on domestic matters in the early 1900s, including “Dame Curtsey’s” Book Of Salads, Sandwiches, and Beverages, “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Candy Making, “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette, and “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Beauty Talks.

I'm told that pulling the cabbage out in the way he describes is indeed a traditional Irish Halloween custom. Though not directly related, it does suggest that cabbage night for the day before Halloween goes back further than we thought.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Nov. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 November 2009.