Kail-torches for All Hallows’ Eve

Then, first an’ foremost, thro’ the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;

They steek their een, and grape an’ wale
For muckle anes, an’ straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
An’ wandered thro’ the bow-kail,
An’ pou’t for want o’ better shift
A runt was like a sow-tail
Sae bow’t that night.

Robert Burns, “Halloween

Although pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns commonly light the night sky on Halloween in the modern day, this vigil of All Saints’ Day was once lit by other torches reflective of the harvest season. The predecessor to the pumpkin lantern was a turnip, but another tradition involved a hearty, leafy green: kale!

Kale is really an incredible plant. A member of the brassica family, it’s related to broccoli, cabbage, collards, etc., and it tends to thrive even in cold, rainy weather (which is why it’s a great staple on our farm here in the Pacific Northwest!)

The leaves of kale grow from buds at the top of the plant. When we harvest, we take its lower leaves, spurring the growth of the stalk and more leaves at the top. Early-season kale is low to the ground and full; but, by the time Halloween has arrived, the kale has gone through multiple harvests and now has a tall stalk and a cupola of leaves at the very top.

Fitting, then, to use that tall kale-stalk for a torch during the Hallowtide vigil!

Richard Waitt, “The Cromartie Fool”, 1731; oil on canvas. On display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

“This grinning man holds a kail stock with a burning candle stuck in the top. This helps identify him as the ‘fool’ or jester of a Scottish laird, who probably presided over Halloween festivities, such as those described in Robert Burns’ poetry. Traditionally, unmarried men and women pulled up kail stocks to confirm the character of their future partner. A candle was then stuck into the end to make a torch. This portrait, painted in 1731, was possibly part of a series depicting Scottish clan members.”

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Kale also figures in to a variety of traditional Halloween games, but it’s the kail-torch that really captured my imagination. I pulled up a kale stalk, root mass & all, and tucked a taper candle into its leaves (remarkably, it stayed put fairly well!) If you’d like to try creating a kail-torch, please of course remember to be extra mindful of the fire hazard; when in doubt, battery-operated candles would be lovely.

This old Scottish folk tradition is such a beautiful example of the threads of celebration woven through the liturgical calendar – an aware ness of the sacramentality of nature and the turning seasons, an attendant agricultural rhythm & heritage of stewardship, and the incarnational theology that speaks through it all. All of this, a beautiful sacramental tool – the accumulation of generations of wrestling, joy, sorrow, and tradition – to help to continually usher us into realignment with God and neighbor as we walk through the cycles of feasts and fasts year after year.

What we now experience in the general calendar is partly the result of centuries of different regional traditions and devotions being adopted universally. Arising at a time when society was more agriculturally-based, and when people therefore paid much closer attention to nature than we tend to now, the calendar seamlessly grafted agrarian rhythms/tasks and the seasons of nature into the theology it was celebrating and communicating.

Cousin of the kail-torch: the cabbage-torch! This cabbage didn’t produce a head and seemed like it deserved to shine in its own way. Here it is, under the light of the moon.

A lot of these old customs have gotten lost in the modern world, but they’re still there to be unearthed…and they bring with them an invitation to see the reverence in everything, and to experience first-hand the common thread that weaves us to the generations that have come before. What more fitting feast that that of All Hallows’ to embrace this?

Just like generations gone before me, I’ll harvest kale on All Hallows’ Eve and let it light our vigil as we remember those who have paved the path before us.

If you decide to light a kail-torch for Halloween, remember to practice fire-safety – or just use battery-operated candles to keep it simple!

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