As we approach the very end of October, may I bid you welcome to the feast of Samhain * or Summer’s End, an ancient Celtic festival celebrated as the marker of the end of the summertime and the beginning of winter. Here our ancestors celebrated the ending of the previous cycle of seasons and the beginning of their new year. It was both a time of preparation where weaker livestock would be culled to provide food over the coming cold months, and a time of feasting, ensuring a goodly girth by which to withstand the approaching leaner times. It was a time when the darkness was illuminated by bone-fires or “bonfires” as the bones of slain animals would be burned, rendering them to ashes which would be scattered to earth.
All around us in the northern hemisphere, the natural world is slowing down and preparing for winter. As the sun traverses lower in the sky giving us less daylight, the nights draw in and the weather becomes colder; plants and animals sense these changes, and begin to prepare for frost to fall and ice to bite.
It is a time when change and decay are seen in deciduous trees, as they put on a final show of golden glory shortly before their leaves lie fallen beneath their exposed “bones”. This autumnal hue is created as the trees pull essential nutrients, including the green colouring, from their leaves into their trunks and roots, leaving the brown tannins which have been there all summer. These leaves fall, giving up their flesh to the earth and often reveal intricate lace-like skeletons if we have a care to search for them amongst the mounds. Some traditions would say this is the time when the leaves of the now fallen Oak King’s crown fade away, continuing the cycle of death and life and it is very easy to see why this association would be made at this time of the year. It certainly mirrors our own mortal bodies, being made of the very fabric of this earth to which it will one day return.
A triad of celebrations occurs around this time after the linking of the Christian holy days of All Saints (All Hallows, with Hallowe’en being All Hallows Eve, the night before) and All Souls with Samhain in the ninth and tenth centuries AD. Samhain wasn’t traditionally associated with remembrance of the dead until it was linked with those two Christian festivals. Ironically what we see in the shops today at Hallowe’en, with its focus on the dead, ghosts, ghouls, vampires and zombies, originates not from the original Summer’s End festival or some dark “day of the devil”, but as a result of these ancient celebrations of the Church itself!
Gradually Samhain came to be thought of as a “thin time”, a time when the veil between this world and the next was thinnest. The gates between the living and dead were said to be opened, and communion would often be sought with a community’s ancestors in an attempt to divine the future for that community. The revival of this celebration by those in some Pagan pathways often follows this connection by honouring the ancestors and maybe even seeking contact with them. The Christ Tradition does not encourage us to seek direct communication with those who have passed over, but does encourage us to hold them in our hearts and minds and to give thanks for, and honour them, for we are, as St. Paul says, “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who are cheering us on our spiritual journey.
There is a parallel between the Christian and Pagan traditions involving the opening of the gates between the living and the dead… According to the Sacred Texts of Jesus (aka the Holy Bible), at the transfiguration of Jesus, two of his closest disciples – Peter and John – were able to see Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah who had passed through to the other side many years earlier.
The moment of death of Jesus upon the cross also saw the breaking open of many tombs and the resurrection of their occupants – what a story they would have to tell, if only it had been recorded!
At the end of days, there will be another resurrection, alluded to in the “Judgement” card of many tarot decks, where the dead will be raised to life and, together with those living at that moment, give account of their lives upon this earth. Those who have responded the call of the Eternal One and committed themselves to a relationship through the Risen and Ascended Master Jesus, will be raised to life everlasting, sharing in the great and final harvest banquet with the whole of the restored creation.
In this season of rest and reflection, may we listen carefully to the inner call of the Eternal Spirit in our lives and so embed ourselves within the One who embodies the ultimate Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
So may it be.
© 2015 Matt Arnold
* Pronounced sow-en, Samhain was never a deity worshipped by our ancestors, this modern myth of “Samhain, the Lord of the Dead” originates from 1960s USA and bears false witness to the true meaning of the Gaelic word.
Some other sites you might find useful when researching the history of Hallowe’en are as follows: