Thoughts on Samhain

Image from the beautiful book, Haunted Air by Ossian Brown

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

I celebrate Samhain on November 1st because I enjoy marking the changing seasons of the year by making these old festivals my own. It’s so easy to lose track of time in an electronic culture. It’s even easier to lose track when you live in Los Angeles, land of the perpetual sunshine.

Samhain marks the last harvest of the year. The weather is cold enough to keep meat, so it is also the time when all non-breeding livestock was slaughtered and cured–otherwise they’d have to be fed through the winter. It also is the start of the dark half of the year, a time of long nights and introspection.

This is a time of transition, and the air is alive with the excitement of it. The leaves are bright, the branches bare and stark against the sky. The days are blue, but the nights are cold and black. The wind kicks up. Dead leaves skitter and bolt across the asphalt. The crows come back to our neighborhood around this time of year and caw in the palms: southern California Gothic. It’s my favorite season here.

The Celts believed places and times of transition–dawn, dusk, midnight, crossroads, lakes and streams, caves, etc.–held supernatural energy. These were places and times where the boundaries between our world and the other world was very thin. Samhain was one of those transition periods, and coming as it did at the last harvest, at the beginning of winter, it was associated with the dead.

And of course, within the Catholic Church November 1st is also marked as All Saint’s Day and the 2nd as All Soul’s Day, both of which honor the dead, the sainted dead and the faithful departed, respectively. And All Soul’s Day is better known around here as Dia de los Muertos (and celebrated in style).

Face it, this is the time of year to deal with mortality and memory.

Halloween is lots of fun. (I love the genial anarchy of both Halloween and Fourth of July–they’re my favorite holidays.) So I save Oct. 31st for trick o’ treaters and parties and celebrate Samhain on the 1st, quietly, with a just a few simple gestures. I don’t plan on slaughtering any animals (Did I just hear our chickens breath a sigh of relief?) so I clean the house instead, and attack one drawer or closet, and shed things I don’t need anymore, both as sort of a psychological purge and in preparation for the busy holiday season to come. I like to make a nice meal, too, something celebratory, and burn candles on the table against the darkness. Then I round up Erik and we toast our dead.

Do you do anything special this time of year?

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  1. i set a place at the table for my loved ones who have passed to honor them. I love honoring my favorite season with fall decorations. I also try to cook special meals and goodies.

  2. We harvest our exceptionally late apples and press them into cider. Then we spend a week or so cleaning up the garden, stripping it down to just what will overwinter. Then we take a deep breath and anticipate the gearing up for Thanksgiving. I finally understand why Thanksgiving is truly a harvest feast – it takes until then to get all the agricultural chores done in the northeast.

  3. Well, I did hand out lollipops to the local squirts last night, because I like to do that. But today is a bigger deal.

    I picked up a Pan de Muerte at the bakery counter at Mi Pueblo Foods, this morning. Unfortunately, the local bakeries tend to not bake the orangey cinnamony bread people, but that seasonal bread will be part of my offering tonight.

    This time of year is all about ancestors for me, and I tend to lay out a dish now with the sweet bread, a cup of coffee, a glass of whiskey for my Scottish ancestors, and then some seasonal fruit which is usually persimmons. We had to trim the pomegranate waaaaay back last winter, otherwise I’d be offering a couple of those. The twist tonight, is that I’ll have a glass of mead on the altar as well. I really wanted to make mead with juice from black nightshade berries (Solanum nigrum; the berries are kind of insipidly like blueberry, and edible although they may mess with your head a bit), but I could not secure any local honey from the local beekeeper at the farmers’ market.

    SF Bay Area has been packed with crows since August, which was a twist this year. I’d be heckled and cat-called walking to and from work in Berkeley. Whereas where I actually live, we have vultures that live in this stand of eucalyptus trees on the busy main street. Darndest thing I ever saw, a vulture taking off from a eucalyptus.

  4. This is beautiful. I love what you said about marking the old festivals; I too want to honour the turning of the seasons in a way that connects to the history of my culture (and teach my son their importance) but I haven’t really figured out how to do it. This year I settled for leaving the Hallowe’en decorations up for a couple of days. Next year we’ll feast!

  5. Our family, with an 8 YO and 4 YO hit a point where we could no longer abide the trick or treating havoc, much less the candy. This year we hosted a no-candy party on the 30th for all local kids, then starting on the 31st we celebrated Samhain ourselves. We’ve had 3 days of celebration – one to celebrate our harvest (we farm), one to honor the animals (we slaughter a good number of them for our livelihood), and one for our ancestors. We made a Winter Crohn out of old asparagus fronds, cooked special meals, lit candles for our ancestors, cried, honored death, left offerings, put out special food for the wildlife and the fairies. My kids conclusions: WAY better than trick or treating.

  6. Thank you all for sharing! It’s wonderful to hear your stories.

    @Sara: Black nightshade mead–that rocks hard. I eat the berries–and coincidentally I think Erik was planning a post on it soon. But mead! That’s taking it to a whole ‘nother level.

    @Shannon: Why am I not your neighbor???????

  7. I just moved my little family to St. Paul, MN from Boulder, CO to be in a better city for arts and farming and close to grandparents and old friends. This is my homeland, but I’ve been an ex-pat in Seattle and Boulder for 15 years combined. My return is a relief—say what you will about cold winters—family is warmer than sun when you have a 2 year old. This morning, when his grandparents rang our doorbell and my son’s eyes beamed at their arrival, I can’t tell you the depth of connection I felt to this place.

    But yesterday, I walked around our new neighborhood and found that nothing was actually familiar—the grey, overcast afternoon, neither cold nor warm, huge houses that seemed completely quiet. The streets were dead. Nothing seemed to be moving. I felt as if I could have slipped easily through the thin veil between reality and the dreamworld. I could have knocked on my own door to find another family living there.

    When I actually managed to return home (safely) and found this post from you, I couldn’t believe that I had experienced Samhain without being aware of its existence. Sure the night before was full of trick or treaters and I grew up a the church vaguely familiar with All Saints Day, but none of those celebrations had been transmitted to me by direct revelation. Pretty great. Now I know what to call this time of year. It’s not the first time I’ve felt it, but now it’s the first time I know what to call it. I have a feeling my ancestors might have known about it once upon a time. Even Germans!

  8. @Timothy: Yes, that’s it. That’s it exactly. This is a magical time of year, imho, no matter what your faith. I’m so glad you now have a name for the experience. And LOL about the Germans–but I’m sure your ancestors in the old country were very aware of the special characteristics of this time of year, and marked it in some way. If you live in close communication with the land you can’t help but feel it.

  9. Mrs. Homegrown… one has to be really careful with black nightshade. It adopted my yard starting with a spot under the loquat in the front, over a year ago. So, I transplanted it to a pot in the back, and it was rooming next to some flowering sages, kicking out flowers, producing plenty of berries.

    I started using the berries as part of an offering I did on dark moons, just instinctively. And I found that handling them made me a bit weird. This kind of peaked with harvesting a bunch for the freezer one evening (was thinking of wine or mead, then), standing up (this was say 5pm PST) and finding the sky was purple. Soooooo. I took a breath, went inside, put the jar in the freezer and made dinner for the cats. The cats were talking about me behind my back, and when I’d turn around they’d just do some feline equivalent of whistling innocently and kicking the ground. Okay. They tucked into their dinner, seemed to be muttering at each other between bites, and I decided I’d better go outside. It was finally getting kind of dim, and I noticed the hens were all in the coop, so I went out to close their door hatch and say goodnight to them. Typical ritual is I lift the lid on the nesting box, thank them for the beeeyootiful eggs today, and tell them sweet dreams. And they sort of coo at me, as they’re playing musical perches on their roost. Not so that night. Instead, they were cussing me out. I didn’t hear it, but I could see from their moving beaks that they were swearing at me, in between their baleful glares.

    Seriously TMI, but it’s a hell of an experience and I have seriously dialed down my interaction with Solanum nigrum in all its variations, since then.

    All I did was absentmindedly lick my pinky finger, after popping a berry. A ripe berry, even. I licked my finger and my sweet companion critters were suddenly plotting and muttering and behaving like… well, like mean-spirited humans. It’s not happened since, but when I see this plant volunteer, I give it space, even if that’s in my potted avocado tree, or next to my beloved medlar in the front yard, or in the tomato raised bed. I water it, harvest very ripe berries for the freezer, and greet it, but that’s it now.

    I think the plant’s waiting to go into a ritual batch of mead, frankly.

  10. Well well, right in keeping with that last post, I was about to add “I harvest a giant pile of Psilocybe cyanescens mushrooms from the park-edge wood chips around my house.” They pop up totally predictably around Samhain in my damp part of the Pacific Northwest. And I take special care because the door between worlds is ajar this week. One of my favorite times of year. Greetings of the season!

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