We returned from our trip to clean up unfinished business from last year, a potential move to the west coast that turned out not to be a viable option. This was during the protracted and nerve-wracking period we knew the landlord wanted to sell and everything associated with my ability to buy seemed to go wrong. It was all very scary in it’s own way and not Halloween fun kind of scares. Air travel now is another nightmare altogether.
Getting home in time for our traditional Samhain was important. Nothing catastrophic happened while I was gone and the new cat sitter was attentive, I could tell. But after a couple of days at home, having caught up with things around the house I noticed Hansel was sneezing and making throat clearing noises and so was Mi Sun. While checking Mi Sun over, as she seemed to have clears signs of a cold or allergies she did not have when I left, I also discovered a place she had chewed a hole through her fur and skin. It looks like it’s healing but she is going to Dr. Miller tomorrow and Hansel is visiting his vet Monday.
Samhain is an important date in the traditional wheel of the year. Actually pronounced soween, it is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the dark half of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. Special bonfires, believed to have protective and cleansing powers were lit and there were rituals involving them.
Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the Aos Sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.
Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. This is obviously where trick or treating originated, but it has been a long and twisted journey. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the “Celtic New Year”, and this view has been repeated by some other scholars.
We don’t do a bonfire and this year, sadly there will be no fireplace fire since the chimney needs a new lining and it would be hazardous to use the fireplace. We’ll have to stick with candle light. I do decorate the house with pumpkins, ravens, black cats, garlands of fake colored leaves and other more Halloweeny things, but it helps set the mood. Trick or treat here is a mob scene more closely resembling Carnival in Rio, so we draw our drapes and keep the lights off rather than spend over $100.00 to ensure enough candy to help ruin the health of all those who might ring the bell (which doesn’t work anyway). The cats get their food and I make a dinner of the things my Irish grandmother used to make, mussel and leek soup, boxty and bubble and squeak, with cheese, bread and cider. It sound like a lot but it’s not and it’s planned to produce leftovers. A place is set for the ancestors and a bowl of food is left for departed cats but is usually finished by morning by those still with us.
I do tend to think of Samhain as a changing of the year. In a few days the clocks will be set back and darkness will begin to take over. The leaves are falling heavily, the garden is finished and we are headed into the last two months of the calendar. It will be a time to take stock, review what went poorly and what went well and to start planning and preparing for a better year next year. Perhaps one of the ancestors will whisper words of sound advice in our ear as we drift off to sleep but in any event it is one of our favorite celebrations.