Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
At Samhain AKA Halloween every October, the boundary between our world and that of the spirits becomes thinner and often breaks, allowing supernatural forces to hold sway for the night.
At the exact opposite side of the year, on April 30th, the same is true of Walpurgis Night. Like most ancient traditions, it is a portmanteaux celebration, with the date of St Walpurga’s saint day combining with pagan Beltane bonfire rituals and becoming the traditional date for witches meetings.
The bonfires have been co-opted for various uses over the years, to scare away evil, drive away winter and welcome spring, mimic the sun to ensure sunshine via sympathetic magic, bring fertility when they are leapt over, to drive out sickness when people or animals are herded between them, and to burn witches in effigy. Taking torches lit from the fires home to kindle flames there is a popular option to continue the magical effect of the bonfire.
Celebrated mainly in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Germany, the rituals vary from one region to another, with the largest gathering usually around the Brocken Mountain- the highest peak in the German Harz mountain range.
The peak of the Brocken is often shrouded in mist and clouds, and its mysterious aspect has inspired legendary status as a spot for witches and devils to cavort, and a previous reputation for pagan sacrifice.
This is what goes down on the mountain peak
Goethe’s Faust names it as the location for a witches sabbat, and the tone poem Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by rumours of magic-workers flying their broomsticks to wild nights on the Brocken.
The village of Schierke at the base of the mountain hosts around 6,000 people a year for Walpurgis Night celebrations. There are parades, a pantomime, fireworks and a funfair, with revellers dressed as witches, goblins and vampires. Next year, I hope to attend and report back. This year I will be deep inside the catacombs of Paris on that night, investigating underground French customs of the season.
The perfect drink for your own Walpurgis Night festivities is a bowl of flaming punch. Very warming for when you return from outside revelries, and acting as a symbolic version of the traditional bonfire which are in themselves symbolic, so this is like symbolism squared, very potent.
I was overjoyed to find a great flaming punch recipe in the first book I ever owned on the subject of entertaining at home: The Esquires Handbook For Hosts. I’ve just added some touches of my own. Well, I’ve completely changed it in fact. It would be wise to tie your hair back and have a dampened cloth handy for emergencies.
Walpurgis Bonfire Punch
2 oranges, cut in half, pierced all over and studded with cloves.
1 bottle of brandy
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar (ideally, bag this with mixed spice for a week beforehand, to infuse it)
2 shots of 151 rum
1 box of orange juice
1 large bottle of fiery gingerbeer
Get hold of a metal punchbowl. If you need to use something plain like a saucepan, that’s still better than a breakable glass version. It needs to be a reasonable size- remember it will need to accommodate the juice and ginger ale as well as the brandy and fruit. Source some extra long matches or tapers for lighting.
Place the halved, studded oranges on a foiled baking tray in the oven, and bake (cut side up) on a moderate heat until they are crisp on the outside but still juicy on the inside. Keep an eye on them but about 15 minutes should do it. Juice may run off, so turn up the edges of the foil so that it doesn’t get into the oven.
If you haven’t time for that, raw, studded oranges work well too, just give them a squeeze as you put them into the bowl.
Drop the sugar into the brandy bottle and shake until it dissolves.
Place the oranges cut side down in the bowl, and pour the brandy over them. Give it some time to infuse if possible – an hour would be ideal, then give it a gentle stir.
Move it to wherever you are going to serve it from. Cut the limes in half, and hollow out the insides. Drop the lime flesh into the bowl.
Drop the hollowed limes into the bowl so that they float, and carefully fill each one half full of 151 rum.
Set a match to the surface of the liquid- depending on the strength of the brandy you have used, this will go on fire…or not. If it does, perfect. If not, turn your attention to the floating lime islands. 151 rum will burn, no question. So ideally you have flaming limes in a lake of fire, but if not, flaming limes in a lake of brandy will still be exciting and serve your purpose. We found that the brandy didn’t ignite at first, but after the rum limes caught on fire, it spread, to thrilling effect.
If you have extra citrus peels to hand, squeeze them to release their juices into the flames, which should flare up. When you are done marvelling at the mystical blue flames, carefully pour the OJ over everything to douse the flames.
Add the ginger beer, and serve immediately.
It would be great to indulge in tabletop fireworks while drinking this punch, and afterwards, dance like a witch on a mountain.