Samhain

Samhein (pronounced ‘sowain’) October 31st.

This is Halloween. The modern commercial world has taken over an ancient tradition and turned it into party time when we can dress up as ghosts, skeletons and witches and frighten people with ‘Trick or Treat !’

It was never like this. Before modern times country dwellers celebrated this festival differently which falls between the autumn equinox and the shortest day. It marks the beginning of winter. It was also the time of the third harvest when nuts and berries were gathered. And it was a time of decision. The family must prepare for winter. How much grain was needed for their survival, how much must be kept for the spring sowing, how much for making bread ? What animals must be spared, which slaughtered for the larder, which could be sold.

It was treated as a new year. Hearths were cleaned and fires relit in a ceremony that reminded them that their strength was their community.

And like all New Years, it was also a time to look back as well as forward. So they remembered the year gone by, particularly those family members who had not survived it. The older generation was respected. Family was important.. This was a time of remembrance. And they remembered by holding a family feast. Tables were set but with places for those who had departed. They eat and drank and talked about the ones who should sit in the empty chairs.

And I suppose remembering on those dark autumn nights, and talking as the fire sank on its embers, it could become a little spine chilling. You became more aware of the darkness, aware of the mystery of death and wondering what lay beyond. You gathered closer round the fire and spoke more softly as if others might hear. How easy for superstitions to arise as you looked at the empty chair and felt the presence of that missing relative.

And somehow the beauty of remembering became lost and tradition changed to thinking that the souls of the departed might be stranded in some no mans land between earth and heaven and only prayer could release them and guide them upwards.

In our Bolton group, we return to remembering and honouring those who have gone before. We bring photographs and mementos of past family members, especially the ones who have influenced our lives. To talk about them is not just remembering. It reestablishes our connections to our ancestors. Some have given us of their wisdom, inspired us by their courage, passed on talents. From the generations before us we have inherited special features and characteristics. We know we are part of a continuum. Our generation has grown out of the past. If we have children, we have passed on the baton of the earlier genes to the next.

And sometimes as we talk, we remember more about our ancestors and sometimes we understand them better as people struggling with life as we might have done. They were characters with strengths and weaknesses just like us. They are no longer just names. .

As a group we have shared our stories. They are all different which makes us all different but in telling them we become closer. The wheel of the year turns and we will move on. Ghosts and skeletons shouting ‘Trick or Treat’ are not of our world.

Tony McNeile

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