Samhain is wonderful festival ‘oozing’ with ancient Gaelic tradition and ‘magic’. Something you can participate in, wherever you are. Literally meaning the ‘end of summer’, it marks the advance of the season of winter. Various pronunciations abound, though I prefer ‘sow-in’, sounding like ‘soh-un’, but in Wales many pronounce it as ‘soh-een’; but, it’s definitely not ‘sam-hane’.
Winter advances: With daylight hours now becoming shorter, especially in northern latitudes, traditionally 1 November, the first day of winter, was designated as the time of this feast, though by our way of reckoning it’s the 31 October. The difference? Well, to ancient Celts, (Celtic) Christians, Druids and others, the new day started in the evening. So, the festival which falls on 1 November, is celebrated the evening before – hence the evening of 31 October (from our viewpoint).
Autumn ends, its the first day of winter.
‘The wind is full of a thousand voices
They pass by the bridge and me.’Loreena McKennitt, ‘All Souls Night’
Since ancient times it was seen as a feast of the dead, and today Hallow’een ‘competes’ with it. Hallowe’en? The name comes from ‘all hallows eve’. When Christianity arrived in Celtic countries, and the church discouraged fortune-telling, and magic etc, a day of celebration of all the Saints of the Church was instituted on 1 November. Many of our hallowe’en traditions, such as bobbing for apples which were originally part of the foretelling of the future, and the baking cakes containing “lucky tokens” also originated at this time, and survive to this day. In addition, and an import from America, it is a time for children (or all ages) to visit door-to-door dressed as something with a ‘deathly’ theme to it, to ‘trick or treat’.
A time to take stock: Samhain, then, was a time when farmers would take stock of their animals – which would live, and which would be killed, and a time to finally gather in (any) residual harvest; a time when local and tradition rituals would be enacted eg bonfires, and embers of these would be taken home as a form of protection; young men would run around the villages boundary with torches, again, for the villagers’ protection, as that night, many believed that the veil between this world and the world of the dead was ‘thin’, and something might (or did) come through for a while. It’s a time for the imagination to run riot, and for stories to be told.
‘Somewhere in a hidden memory
Images float before my eyes’.
Loreena McKennitt, ‘All Souls Night’
Whether you believe this factually, ‘romantically’ or not at all, the stories of that night, retold around a bonfire, perhaps, intrigued men and women, and (no doubt) frightened (hopefully in a ‘nice’ sense) many a child. Even today, the tv ‘lights up’, innocently, with many horror movies at this time of year to keep adults ‘mesmerised’.It’s a ‘thin’ time.
Taking stock? A ‘thinning’ of the veil between here and the other, ensures that this night, the evening of 31 October, is a feast, a celebration, a time of deep thought, a reflecting of the life of those that have gone before us.
Even in its simplest form – depending on your theology – it is a time to think about the ancestors, how they contributed to make us the person/people we are today, and to give thanks. A time to remember the ancestors in different, honouring ways. For me, reflection, thinking about the ancestors and the giving of gratitude to the Source of All predominates at this time.
Do something: Other will indulge in ritual, and though each may have a different way to acknowledge this feast, I enjoy the variety, enthusiasm and intentionality that my Christian, Celtic Christian, co-Druids, Wiccan and other friends put into this festival (even though, for some of it – not all – I am an observer). I have my own way, my own ritual to mark this time, and it may be that you do, too. My advice to you is: Do it! Be honest to yourself, be sincere and intentional, be joyful about it, but in some way (large of small, complicated or simple) observe the time, and make it something good, and wholesome, and memorable.
Do something to mark the time. Make it memorable.
Enjoy the feast: A bonfire might be out of the question, but how about lighting a candle, at least for 10-20 minutes and thinking of your ancestors in a joyful and honouring way? They’re home. You might now be able to run around then edge of a village, but how about an evening walk, a silent walk, of gratitude? Elementals? Here’s your opportunity to find our more about them – an evening when their activity is said to increase – and you can find a lot about them on the internet, but don’t make it only ‘book-learning’. Why not go for a county walk, or a walk in the park, or alongside a riverbank, and reflect? And, then perhaps, later, treat yourself to a meal, a glass of wine, and yes, even a good, scary movie?
Ofcourse, you might like a ritual of some sort or recite relevant poetry, or sing a song, and there are some resources below.
Resources: Here’s some resources that you might like to use to get you into the ‘mood’ of celebrating Samhain:
‘The circle is turning’ (poem and song lyrics) can be viewed here.
If you’re ‘brave’ enough to sing it, there’s a delightful melody (the tune of Fear a Bhata (The Boatman), a traditional Gaelic piece of music to accompany you: here. For the technically minded each of the verses start at 11 seconds, 57 seconds, 1 minute and 43 seconds, and 2 minutes and 31 seconds into the tune
Or, you might like to read (and recite) Rabbie Burns’ poem ‘Hallowe’en’, part of which is:
Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the Cove, to stray an’ rove,
Amang the rocks and streams
To sport that night;
Loreen McKennitt’s delightful song, ‘All Soul’s Night’ can be heard here.
And, finally, a traditional Scottish prayer:
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!