Seasonal Celebrations: Keeping Samhain
I reside in Cornwall which means Autumn reaches us last at the very edge of the island. Although summer has waned and I’ve already witnessed my first blood red full moon of the season, there’s still enough warmth left to bask in the shallow shores in our swim togs and enjoy the beaches all to ourselves. The trees are just about beginning to fade and the first scattering of acorns have dusted our woodland floors. Last weekend, I drove North to the edge of the Peak District and it enchanted me to feel as though I was plunging further into real autumn, to see the trees become increasingly burned gold and red as I travelled, the leaves dancing serenely down.
With the autumn equinox behind us now, we have passed the period marker of when the length of the days are equal to the nights; what lies next is the observation of Samhain, the beginning of the chapter of darkness and night. Don’t despair, it’s not as grim as it sounds; for the night is exciting and the approaching phase on the calendar is one of fire and warmth. The tradition of observing Samhain is well kept in modern culture and today is more commonly referred to as ‘Halloween’ or ‘All Hallows Eve’. Although Samhain predominantly marks the beginning of the winter in the Celtic calendar and celebrates the beginning of the ‘period of darkness’, there are the well-known, altogether more mystical associations which have been translated over to other religions that also observe this festival. I’m sure you’ve learned this from cultural osmosis in one way or another, but it is believed across the faiths that the 31st of October is the night when the veil between the spirit world and ours is the thinnest, that spirits can walk and dance among us.
On the British isles, it was the Pagan Celts that began honouring their dead with Samhain; lighting candles, bonfires and holding feasts wearing the skins and bones of the animals sacrificed for the festival thus beginning the tradition of disguise and dressing up for the festivities. While death is perhaps the largest theme of the Samhain festival, there is nothing morbid or satanic about the celebrations; modern pagans do not believe that death is something to be feared, but it gives way to birth and new beginnings. The festival is not only one of marking a shift in the natural calendar and physical changes in the earth but one of respect and joy in celebration of the lives of loved ones and a time to reflect on things that have come to an end, be it relationships, jobs, friendships, chapters and other significant life changes. It’s a time of making peace and new beginnings.
Cast yourself back into the Samhain of the Celtic Pagans; their druids built enormous bonfires which were sacred and their fire was shared with the village and used to light the bonfires of their homes throughout the winter, protecting and warming the villagers. Feasts were shared together in these communities with music and merriment. As the veil between the two worlds, corporeal and spirit, was seemingly dissolved, the druids thought that the spirits of their ancestors could help them to predict the future and so fortunes would be told. For the Celts, the transition into the new phase on the wheel of the year did not begin at dawn but instead at sunset, with darkness. As the final harvest of the year has been reaped, the seeds (symbolic of the gods) go back into the earth for the winter period to be reborn at Yule. It is considered that as the seeds are plunged back into the deep, dark loamy soil of the land, the sun king travels the underworld, learning and gaining wisdom before his re-emergence at Yule time with new ideas and knowledge.
It is symbolic that during this period of darkness, we reflect and take stock, find inspiration, create and birth wonderful new dreams and ideas. The winter phase is a time for dreaming. Have you ever wondered what the significance of apples at Halloween is? In Celtic-Pagan lore, apples are a sacred fruit and a symbol of life and immortality. A Celtic tradition was to bury the apples at Samhain which would provide food for the souls waiting to be reborn. Another symbol of Samhain is the besom-broom, traditionally made with birch things to represent purification and renewal. The motions of sweeping away the autumn leaves and cobwebs not only efficiently clears away the house, but ritually clears away old energies making space for the new; another symbol of rebirth.
The word Samhain translates as ‘Summer’s end’ and comes from the gaelic language. It was known under other names across the various Celtic regions, for example; ‘Nos Galan Gaea’ in Welsh which means ‘Winter’s Eve’. But Samhain isn’t the oldest festival nor the only festival where the Pagan Celts believed to have elements of ‘magic’ and the ‘mystic’ - May the 1st in fact holds much more prominence in the early Celtic calendars across the British Isles.
Today, the festival has since been absorbed and adopted by modern faiths and culture and has become a vibrant mix of traditions and influences. One thing is for sure and that is the theme of the spirit world merging with our own still influences our celebrations of the Halloween festival and although it may not be the skins and skulls of animals that the revellers choose to wear, the enthusiasm for disguise and dressing up has endured and is certainly one of the key components of modern Halloween.
So maybe this Samhain you’ll be lighting a candle in memory of lost family or relationships, bobbing for apples or even hitting the town for a night of wild antics dressed up as an exceedingly scary bunny rabbit. Regardless of whether you believe that the spirits are dancing among us that evening, there’s no denying that Halloween is an exciting festival of whimsy and enduring harmless tradition (as long as you’re not sacrificing anything more than a few five pound notes at the bar.) It marks the beginning of a season filled with roaring fires, listening to storms rattle the windows, putting on the most comfortable of woollen scarves, lighting deliciously scented candles while nestling down under thick blankets with your loved ones and indulging in seasonal hot drinks liked mulled cider and spiced coffee. I think personally, that’s as good a reason as any to celebrate.