by Sarah Connor
Of all the cross-quarter festivals, Samhain is the only one that seems to have retained a hold on the popular imagination. The ancient festival was co-opted by the Church into All Hallows’ Eve, and then transformed and transmuted into the festival of pumpkins and witches and monsters we know today. It’s more enthusiastically celebrated than Easter, I think, and is second only to Christmas as a popular festival.
My Irish husband’s childhood Halloween was all about nuts and fruit — no candy! — and barmbrack, a fruit cake containing charms that foretold the future (if you found a wedding ring, you’d be the first to get married, if you found a coin you’d be rich). My northern English Halloween smelled of burnt turnip (no pumpkins!), and had a whiff of folk magic about it. If you could peel an apple in one go and then toss the peel over your shoulder it would show you the initial of the one you’d marry. We bobbed for apples in bowls of water, too. Apples are very much linked with the goddess, of course, with her five-pointed star right at the heart of the fruit.
If we look beyond the pumpkins and candy, what do we see? An old, old festival — the end of Autumn, the start of Winter; the festival that celebrates the dark of the year; the festival that celebrated the goddess in her crone aspect. The festival of the dead. A time when the living leave their doors open for their dead — or join them in the graveyard with food, music and flowers.
Have we ever felt the presence of the dead more than we do this year? There is so much to mourn. Five million COVID deaths around the world. It’s an unfathomable number. It’s as if Sydney, or Cape Town, or Montreal have been wiped off the map.
We’ve not just lost people, we’ve lost time, opportunities, celebrations, holidays. We have a lot to mourn.
The energy of Samhain is the energy of the dark. It’s the acceptance that death is necessary for renewal, that loss is necessary for gain. It’s the energy of change, of shedding old ideas, old ways of doing things. It’s the doorway to winter, to a time when the land lies fallow. Deep down in the dark, change is happening. Seeds are swelling preparing to put out tentative roots and shoots. Trees are dormant, waiting to burst into leaf. As creators, we all have fallow times. Samhain reminds us that these fallow times are a necessary part of creativity, that they need to be accepted. When we’re blocked, or empty, or wordless, maybe our inner creator is telling us it’s time to rest, to absorb, to let the deep work happen.
I came across a beautiful notion when looking at Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead traditions. The word “guest” and the word “ghost” both come from the German word geist — a spirit invited to join the feasting on the Day of the Dead. That says to me that we can open our arms and our hearts to the uncomfortable and the uncanny. We can accept the dark gifts they bring — introspection, reflection, mourning, the discomfort of rebirth.
So for this Samhain, perhaps you could think about what you have lost—- willingly or unwillingly? Perhaps you could think about the empty time before we are renewed, your own fallow times? Perhaps you want to celebrate a loved one who has left us? Or perhaps you want to celebrate the dark power of the crone, the austere strength of winter. The veil between worlds is thin, the past and future are close enough to touch. It’s Samhain, and darkness lies before us. Let’s accept it. More than that: let’s celebrate.