Friday, 31 December 2021

Food History: Breaking Bread - A Lost Custom in Ireland?

Food history is not a topic I write about much but it is certainly something that interests me, and occasionally I come across a story or reference that is intriguing enough to want me to share it to a wider audience.

A little while back I came across an article from January 1852 with wonderful images in the Illustrated London News regarding an old baking custom in Ireland that for the most part seems to have disappeared, apart from the odd mention in lists of traditions from around the festive period or the occasional reference to something vaguely similar that people still do spotted on social media or elsewhere.

Instead of waffling on about it too much here I will just transcribe the article for you to make of what you will from it, or use as a reference point if you ever spot it being mentioned or hear about it in other circumstances.

The Baking and Breaking of the New Year’s Eve Cake - A Christmas Custom in Ireland

(From a Correspondent)

This fine old festival, whose origin is lost amidst the Pagan darkness that surrounds so many of the customs of this country, and yet rendered dear to its inhabitants by the joyous association of childhood, like the many other, is now passing away not only from the practice, but also from the recollection, of the people; yet they delight to talk of those times when the worthy good man, either in ‘the big house’ or ‘comfortable homestead’ made known to his cherished friends and humble dependents that the ‘lady of the house’ or ‘the good woman’ was to have her New Year's Eve cake; And the sly invitation was sure to gather all who cherished genuine wit and humour to witness the making of the cake - that important portion of the meal - to enjoy the drollery of him and her installed as high priest and to stage the requisite incantations to secure the success of the charmed cake. This, having been once fairly placed on the griddle (in those days our forefathers knew little of the oven for such uses), became an object of interest more than one, and many were the sly coleens who, when the lad of her choice placed in the fire a sprig of the still verdant holly or Ivy that decorated the kitchen, would adroitly steal in another little sprig to the blazing pile, to see if her fortune burned and kept pace with his; if it did so, (like the burnt nuts of All-Hallows eve) a smooth current of happiness for the coming year was indicated.

Those were, indeed, days of simplicity, when the Baron and the peasant met alike under the same roof; when even the humble itinerant fiddler who played his way through the country was expected to witness the next aspirant to manhood lay hold of the well-made and substantial cake, and, with his mimic strength, dash against the door, when it was shivered to pieces, while the assembled witnesses of the scene offered up in spirit an humbled but fervent prayer that cold, want, or hunger might not enter that door for the ensuing year. The fragments of the cake were then scrambled for, and certain was he or she who succeeded in securing the first fragment that touched the ground, that they, too, would have a home and a New Year's Cake ere the next year was out.

To this succeeded a scene of romping, eating and drinking, dancing and singing, such as can only be witnessed in Ireland; And the mirth continues up to the hour that marks our passage from one year into another, when a fervent prayer is offered up to Him who has brought us thus to a new year, and enabled us to see the light of another.

We recollect, when a schoolboy, thinking with delight over our promised enjoyment of a New Year's Cake, and of all our school fellows having the same promise of enjoyment held out to them; whereas we believe that the practice is now only carried out in the more comfortable and wealthy homes of the South and Midland counties of poor old Ireland.

It is a tradition that was certainly lost to me until recently - and there are another couple in there too regarding the burning of holly and nuts. The wording is a bit difficult in places to our modern ears given the language, grammar, and syntax of the middle of the 19th century but I am sure you get the gist of the tradition; the baking of bread/cake in a griddle pan, and it then being smashed against the door by a son in the household for luck, with an extra dose of fortune for the person who got the first piece to hit the ground.

Anyone up for it?


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Newspaper images are © The British Library Board - All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( from whom I have received permission to display these images on this site.

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