I was busy preparing a celebratory supper for us and some friends. It was Friday and Hallowe’en or Samhain; the end of summer, the beginning of winter and the Celtic New year.
Having lived my life in tune with the seasons and nature for so long I find myself compelled to do certain things at certain times of the year, as if engrained in my genes. Autumn I love, even after a dreary summer. There’s a gentle tranquillity, a whimsical melancholy. I draw the countryside and her gold, bronzes, rusts and amber to me, into some secret place which I hug tight.
The past couple of weeks have found me collecting and squirreling away the last of the fruits and berries. Hips, for rosehip syrup and crab apple and hip jelly – stuffed full of vitamin C and A to chase away those winter’s colds; haws to make into hawthorn butter and bottles of piquant sauce – a wonderful tonic for the heart and circulatory system; and quince for quince cheese, jelly and spiced quince, just because I love it.
The house changes too. I swap cool summer greens for warm rusts and Turkey red. Our fires smoulder slowly throughout the day ready to sparkle into crackling dancing flames in harmony with curtains drawn against the early evening dark and chill.
Like our ancestors I need to celebrate the end of summer and harvest, to wish us all well during the dark months and toast the return of light and growth!
Samhain celebrations have survived the centuries in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest, fertility and the dead. Samhain was a time to take stock and eliminate weakness; to decide which animals, too frail to survive the long winter months, to slaughter, and for preparing stores of preserved meat, fruits and grain to last through the coming winter. Not so very different from us today.
Bonfires, originally ‘bone fires’, played a large part in the festivities, as the bones of the slaughtered cattle were thrown into the flames. These bonfires also represented the sun, the giver of life and light, warding off evil spirits and providing warmth and a welcome to good ones. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires and each family would relight their hearth from the embers of the common flame, bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification; sometimes cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires as well.
Samhain was overlain by All Saints Day and All Souls Day in an attempt by the church to undermine the Pagan festival and so it became All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en. Even before this it was tangled up with the Roman festivals of Feralia, celebrating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees (the apple being a symbol of fertility).
With our bonfires already having burnt fiercely from the polytunnel clearance; a shoulder of lamb slow roasting in the oven, vegetables aplenty from the garden, spiced baked apples for pudding and our carved lantern flickering on the table, it seems we are keeping to the age old festivities and traditions of our ancestors.