It’s Thursday, so it must be time for another High Day essay. Today’s its the biggie: Samhain. Where to even start?
Well, let’s start with Samhain’s association as a ‘Feast of the Dead’. As far we know, the ancient Celts did not celebrate the equinoxes. Instead, the hinges of the year were Beltaine and Samhain. Thus, as a liminal event marking the beginning of the dark part of the year, the gates between the worlds are said to open, allowing the dead to return to the mortal world. The tradition of setting a place for the ancestors at dinner is said to be a very old tradition indeed.
Fire has played a very significant role in Samhain celebrations. In the Celtic world, typically all of the fires in a village would be extinguished and a need-fire created by the men. The village’s hearth fires would then be lit from the need-fire.
Samhain also has an aspect of the marking of the final harvest and preparing for the coming winter. Livestock was slaughtered and meat and food prepared for storage over winter. Tales would be told of the witch hag of winter.
In North America, of course, the prevalent modern custom is that of Halloween with its costumes, candy, horror films, and pumpkin carving. Many homes are also decorated with seasonal displays marking the end of the harvest, particularly corn stalks, straw, and gourds.
As for the Earth at Samhain, here in Canada the day really does mark the end of the year. The trees are mostly bare, with a few red and gold leaves hanging on here and there. The nuts have fallen and have been hoarded by squirrels. The deer are on the move for rutting season. Great flocks of birds pass by overhead on their way south. The farmers are rushing to bring in the last of the harvest before the first frost. Samhain even marks the first day that most of us can reasonably expect to see snow, although we prefer that it holds off until closer to Yule!