Samhuinn & the Celtic New Year

I can’t believe it’s already half a year since I led my All Our Relations eco-writing workshop for Beltane. Then, the apple trees were foaming with blossom; now, the apples have already been eaten. I’ve barely seen nuthatches and woodpeckers since then, though owls call to each other from tree to tree in the dawn and dusk wolf-light. TIme to start feeding the seed-and-nut eaters again.

31st October and into 1st or even 2nd November is one of those great turning points of the year: a cross-quarter date in the Celtic calendar, exactly midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Samhain, or Samhuinn, is one of the fire festivals of the pagan/Celtic world. This time is a ‘doorway’ into other planes and subtler realms, where the veil between our world and the Otherworld is briefly drawn aside; a time when spirit and matter as well may approach each other more closely.

This is a time for fires and human warmth, and too a reflective and inward time of memory and recollection.

Some say it’s the Celtic New Year, and the festivities in the ancient Celtic world would last for three days (the traditional length of time for initiation/transformation into higher levels of being, to our ancestors: viz Christ in the tomb, Odin on his tree, Osiris in his underworld journey).

At this time one can remember ancestors: loved friends, companions, and relatives, or teachers, who have died, and invite something of their spirit into our lives as well as bless their passing. I make a practice of lighting candles in every window to shine out into the dark on the night of 31st as I name those whom I’ve loved who are no longer here.

The west is the direction of the dead, the dying year, the setting sun, so in Celtic areas sometimes a shrine was made to the west of the house in honour of the ancestors. A fire or bonfire, indoors or outdoors, seems essential – a reminder of the light as we turn to the dark of the year, and ‘summer’s end’, the meaning of ‘samhain’ or ‘samhuinn’.

The other thing one can do is a ceremony or ritual fitting to the ending of an old and beginning of a new year: I try to make the time to reflect on and write about what has passed in the year just gone; what or who I need to mourn and let go of; what I need to welcome in. I write down and symbolically burn that which is dead, gone from, or needs to be gone from my life (often this is a psychological quality; eg anxiety); and I do the same thing with what I invite into my life in the coming year.

In the Druidic year a branch of yew would be brought into the house, and offerings (as thanksgivings for the harvest of summer) of a crumb of bread, pinch of salt, dash of wine and a few drops of honey made to the fire and then tasted by those present.

I bring in berries, often spindle berries, and a slender branch or two of autumn leaves. Sometimes I’ll include an evergreen sprig of yew. This year I picked a number of nasturtiums from the many self-seeded multi-coloured ones in the bed where my squashes were. Sometimes I’ll pattern them with a white pebble or two, for owl and moon of the dark time, and maybe some fir cones.

Always, I’ll light a candle on the kitchen table, and on the hearth.

Outside the Wild Hunt passes, mythically speaking, with the Gabriel Hounds, Gwynn ap Nudd, or Herne the Hunter – the horned god, consort to the goddess, now in her third phase of hag or crone (I like to think of this as her phase as wise queen and sage, whose time is from Samhain till Imbolc, 1st February). In parts of Eire this was the time of the White Mare, symbol of the Great Goddess.

This can be seen as a time of timelessness, briefly, when eternity is closer to us, when subtle doors and windows are open. Communications between the Otherworld and this travel more fluidly.

I wish you a good one; and blessings from the fires of immortality.