As the long summer days grow shorter and winter draws near, I want to take this opportunity to talk a little about the “true meaning of Halloween” after all, it is a holiday that has been celebrated here by our ancestors for centuries and centuries, predating Christmas by thousands of years!
The Celts, when they weren't fighting, lived a life of fishing and farming, and a bad harvest could potentially mean death for the entire family. They worshipped the land that fed them, she was personified in Goddess form and features in many myths and legends. In the Spring, she appears as a young maiden, full of the joys of life! As the Summer draws in, she becomes pregnant, heavy with the bounty of the coming harvest. And then as Halloween, or to give it its correct name Samhain rolls around, she becomes the old wise grandmother or the Crone.
Today, when you see images of old witches, what you are really seeing is a modern take on the Ancient Crone!
With the days becoming shorter, and the long nights ahead, it must have been a worrying time. Making sure there was enough food to last the winter and that the woodpile was fully stocked. Back then wolves roamed this island, a bad winter could bring them perilously close, a child sent to pick up wood or gather water from the nearby river could easily be whisked away, never to be seen again. Weaker animals would be slaughtered, an elderly person could catch a bad chill, death was all around them at this time.
They believed too that in its own way, the Earth was dying too. The final harvest, a time to pick vegetables, apples, nuts and the last of the foraged roots and herbs the hedgerows and forests have to offer before the ground turned hard with frost and the trees became bare.
So our ancestors would celebrate this last harvest with a great feast on the 31st, anything left on the trees after this date belonged to the Earth. To pick it was to risk a bad harvest the following year and certain death.
And on Samhain night, the dead could wander freely amongst us. It was called a Thin Time, a time when the two worlds, ours and that of the living crossed over. Now that might sound bad, but it could be quite wished for. A parent, child or loved one that had passed over might return for a visit. So we once honoured our ancestors this night, leaving out food for them in case they passed by. Later in history, this evolved into the “dumb supper” a single place at the table left empty as a symbolic gesture.
Of course, being a Celt, you may have indulged in some cattle raiding, or a skirmish or two and may have the decapitated heads of your enemies hanging on the gates of your fort. These ghosts may be wandering about too, and you don't want to be caught by one of them! So if you are heading out, perhaps its best to disguise yourself as a ghoul of some sort. That way they will pass you right by. And if anyone comes knocking at your door, they might not be a loved one returning, but a dreaded enemy! So its probably a good idea to offer whoever it is, a generous plate from your feast!
A Thin Time, was also good for divination, games with apples could tell you the name of a future spouse, who might become rich the coming year, who might travel and who might never fall in love!
Over the centuries the holiday has evolved and changed as we have. In the 1840s when so many fled the Potato Famine, they brought with them Samhain and it became blended with the beliefs of the Mexicans and the black slaves and took on a life of its own. Today here in Ireland, we now celebrate a strange hybrid holiday that's as multicultural as Ireland is too!
So here are a few ideas that may appeal to you if you are looking to celebrate a more “traditional” Samhain!
1. Do a thorough Samhain clean. Never mind your spring clean, you have a long winter ahead, so clean the windows to catch the last of the sunlight, pack away the summer clothes, stock up the presses and freezer with hearty soups, stew and bread. Get in a ton bag of logs and get the winter duvet and extra blankets out of the hotpress!
2. Pick up or make your own Barm Brack. It means speckled bread as it was filled with the fruits leftover from the summer. Asides from apples, it will probably be the last bit of fruit you might see until the summer!
3. Make up an Ancestors Altar, place on it photos of old friends and family members, even pets! Light candles and invite people to leave an offering of a few nuts or some fruit on a plate in case the ancestors drop by!
4. Light a small bonfire in your garden/chiminea/bbq and let it burn through the night as a way of making sure your ghoulish dead enemies stay far away!
5. Check in with your older neighbours, make sure they are safe and ready for winter, especially the crones!
6. Look up some of the older games that people used to tell the future, for example peeling an apple in one long string and throwing the peel over your left shoulder should give you the initial of your true loves first name!
7. Take a mindful walk in the woods, up to the Lavender farm or down to Courtown woods. Breathe in the changing smells of the forest and be thankful that winter is now a time of hot chocolate, bingeing on TV box-sets and roast dinners on a Sunday!