Its October 31st so that means in Ireland, Britain, the USA and probably in other parts of the world too its Hallowe’en. (Note the apostrophe!) This is the first festival/feast day/notable date in my Year of Living Seasonally project and its one that I’ve never much partaken in. I grew up in the south-west of England and we never really marked Hallowe’en much (that might just have been us mind you). Bonfire Night (Nov 5th) was a bigger deal for us. As I learnt more about Celtic and Irish folklore and customs and also began to explore religion and spirituality more, this time fascinated me.
You see, traditionally (and I’m slightly wary of that word because one family’s traditions, or one region’s traditions are not the same as another’s) here in Ireland it was the festival of Samhain, one of the cross quarter days that marked the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the year. It was seen as the start of winter and was marked – according to some authorities – from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November 1st. James MacKillop in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology says Samhain was the “principal calendar feast of early Ireland.” Samhain was – and for many still remains – the Celtic New Year. Many pagans observe this festival as their New Year today. It might seem an odd time to celebrate or mark the start of a new year. I rather like the idea of starting a new year as the seasons change and as we move into winter. The sense of burrowing down, of resting and reflecting by the fireside appeals to me very much. I like to spend the winter evenings reading, pondering, switching off. For me its a time to shed the old and prepare for the rejuvenation that comes at Imbolc, the start of spring on February 1st. MacKillop says that “Samhain seemed suspended in time, when the borders between the natural and the supernatural dissolve and the spirits from the Otherworld might move freely into the realm of mortals.”
The Celtic calendar is usually displayed as a wheel – emphasising the cycle of life and the seasons – and it is common for Samhain to be at the top of the wheel (in the 12 o’clock position if you like). In Ireland and Britain we still alter our clocks twice a year and it was last weekend when we turned the clocks back an hour. Consequently it is darker earlier now in the evenings and this enhances (for me anyway) the sense of it being time to slow down, to relax, to reflect. For many people, Samhain is a spiritual and religious event which is marked by ceremony and ritual. I live some 15 miles or so away from Tlachtga near Athboy in Co. Meath where on this date every year a ceremony is held to mark the date, the turning of the wheel and to honour the dead. You can read more about this here. I haven’t attended it yet, and won’t be this year either but I like the idea of the ceremony. There are many many gatherings, feasts and ceremonies being held to mark this night. I found this little verse online earlier and it spoke to me:
Blessed be the ancestors, the ones whom life has fled
Tonight we merry meet again, our own beloved dead
The wheel of the year turns on, a new year is in our sights
The maiden has become the crone, we celebrate this night
Over the last couple of years I have been reading more and thinking more about the sacred feminine so the reference to the maiden and the crone resonates with me. So if Samhain is a calendar festival that marks changes in the natural year and for some is a sacred occasion, then where did Hallowe’en come from? You might be surprised to learn that the term Hallowe’en is of Christian origin. I mentioned the importance of the apostrophe earlier – it signifies that the original term was likely ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’ which probably came from All Hallows Eve, being the term for the night before All Hallows Day – or All Saints Day as it is better known. All Saints Day of course precedes All Souls Day, which is a Christian day of prayer for the dead. I have my own personal beliefs and I do try to actively respect those of others but a day of prayer for the dead just two days after Samhain – I wonder where the idea came from? However, I digress. So Hallowe’en then is the night before All Saints Day. So where do the now widely practised traditions of trick or treating, Jack O Lanterns and the like come from? You could do worse than start with the Wikipedia entry for Hallowe’en for some explanations. A couple of quick points though: Jack O Lanterns are hollowed out vegetables (now usually pumpkins) in which a face, often a grotesque one, is carved and a candle is placed, the idea being that this monstrous illuminated face will frighten off any unwanted creatures from the Otherworld who might have passed through the veil between the two worlds (back to Samhain again). Trick or treating, well that seems to have grown from the tradition of going from door to door receiving food Britain and Ireland called “souling”, where children and poor people would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for cakes. Guising—children disguised in costumes going from door to door for food and coins—also predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.
Hallowe’en now – and this really seems to me to have taken off in the last fifteen years or so – is marked by many as something of a gore fest. The more horrific and scarier the better. Ok, scary is one thing and of course Samhain is the time when the veil between our world and the otherworld is at its thinnest so any kind of otherworldly being might put in an appearance. But I will lay my cards on the table here and say that the whole blood and gore and frightfest doesn’t appeal to me at all. I don’t like horror movies or gory stuff (I will admit to watching The Walking Dead though – sometimes with a cushion close by) and I’ve never understood the appeal. But if its how people want to mark Hallowe’en then who am I to argue? I suppose at least it has some links to the festival’s origins in Samhain when who knew what Otherworldly beings might be among us? Two things I really don’t like though: the so-called sexy costumes, which have NOTHING to do with the festival and are just fancy dress, and secondly the term ‘Happy Hallowe’en’. Its just too Americanised (a generalisation I know!) and too saccharine for me.
As I finish this post the sun is almost set. Samhain is upon us. The wheel has turned, the veil has thinned. Its time to reflect upon the darkness and to restore ourselves ready for the coming of spring. A blessed Samhain to you all.
As someone who is passionately interested in history, myth, folklore and ritual, I sometimes find myself musing on tradition. (I’m referring to what the OED calls its mass noun usage) Its a much used and abused word, it can be used to justify a certain behaviour or practice “well its traditional” or in an attempt to prevent sometimes much-needed change. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way”
So in the way that I’m thinking about it here, a tradition is a custom or belief. Some customs/beliefs/behaviours do not survive terribly long in the whole of human history. Others persist and some that are generally perceived as being old and traditional are often a lot more recent than is widely thought. For example, roast turkey is widely considered to be the traditional Christmas dinner in England and Ireland (they are the only countries I’ve spent Christmas in so I don’t feel qualified to comment on others) but my readings tell me that it didn’t become commonplace until the eighteenth century, with goose or beef being the previously traditional dish.
The reasons why some traditions survive while others don’t are as varied as the traditions themselves but I feel that each generation should feel able to pick and choose from the assortment of traditions they have grown up with. Traditions can change and develop too and some elements of any given custom or practice may alter from how it was originally carried out. I’m thinking particularly this evening of an Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas. Debates pop up each year around this time on various social media as to whether or not it was practiced throughout Ireland, and as to what form it took. Needless to say there is never agreement! My understanding of Nollaig na mBan is that it was a day when the men took over all the household chores to give women a rest after all they had done to make the Christmas festivities happen. Nollaig na mBan, for those who don’t know, is celebrated on January 6th – the feast of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night. In more recent times, the celebration has consisted of groups of women coming together to have a meal – usually in a restaurant from what I can make out – and have some of what we would now call downtime. I’ve read reminiscences of women talking about their mothers greatly looking forward to this one night in the year when they got to dress up and go out with other women. (These mostly date from the 1960’s and 1970’s).
In my community, a group of us are keeping this tradition alive. A very dear friend of mine throws her house open for Nollaig na mBan, invites loads of women friends with the proviso that we all bring something from our Christmas leftovers to eat and drink. Often things are made especially too. Its always a great night, good food, lots of music and plenty of laughs. Yes we have altered that tradition somewhat but it works for us and we’ll pass it on to the next generation. And they can make of it what they will, if its not for them, so be it. Traditions should be living things, not something preserved in aspic. If a tradition isn’t right for any given person or group of people then they shouldn’t feel compelled to maintain it. I like traditions, learning about them and in some instances trying to live them, but I like even more that they reflect the community who developed them. If they can’t be adapted or even discarded if need be, then what does that say about society? That we never want anything to change? Perish the thought.
I’m off now to get ready for tonight’s Nollaig na mBan party. Yes its Jan 4th not the 6th, but hey, traditions can change, right? Nollaig na mBan faoi mhaise dhaoibh!
No I swear I am not getting into a habit of recycling song titles to use as blog post titles apologies to the Proclaimers but this line came up in a conversation I was having with friends earlier. (Actually on that point, is a multi-person message on Facebook a conversation??) Anyway, we were chatting about Hallowe’en outfits for children. I hadn’t bought one for herself yet – to be honest I wasn’t even sure I was going to as we don’t do trick or treating, its just not safe on our road – but then got a message home from school yesterday to say the children can wear their Hallowe’en outfits in tomorrow as they are having a party. Shite. Cue panicky rummaging through her clothes – nada that is even vaguely Hallowe’en-esque. Our town is small (and I like it that way) but it means not a great selection of outfits. Anyway we have purchased two out of which I will attempt tonight to cobble one.
And that reminded me that every year of my daughter’s life I have decided to make her a Hallowe’en outfit. And every spring I’ve had the best intentions to do something with eggs and chicks (fake ones). And in the run up to Christmas I always think how lovely it would be to make an Advent calendar for her. And I haven’t done any of them yet. But I’m not beating myself up over it, I’ve realised I get nearly as much enjoyment out of thinking about these projects and looking up creative ideas as I would out of actually doing them and that’s got to be good, right?
I always considered myself to be pretty good with words, I like words, I like learning new words, I like showing that I have expanded my vocabulary. And I will be 42 in a few weeks! But sometimes I find that while I know the definition of a word, I might not fully understand the reality of that word. Well today I finally understood a word I’d never used much before – wistful.
Yes, wistful, a word that if I had ever really thought about it I would have associated with tormented heroines in Victorian melodramas. The OED definition of wistful is “having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing”. Well that just sums up perfectly how I feel right now. I don’t recall ever feeling any way that I would have described as wistful before.
So what brought this on? We were sitting on the sofa earlier with our giggly chatty little girlie when her Daddy spotted she was missing a tooth. A tooth!! Yes she has lost her first baby tooth aged 5 years and nearly 9 months. We didn’t even know it was wobbly 😦 I initially panicked and thought she’d knocked it out somehow but no, our baby is growing up.
And the wistfulness I hear you ask? Well, after we got a pic of the gap and gave her lots of cuddles (which bemused her somewhat as she hadn’t a clue what was going on) it occurred to me that the traditional thing to happen tonight would be for the tooth fairy to pop a coin under her pillow (with a little help from Dad & Mum). But that won’t be happening here, she doesn’t understand what has happened, money means nothing to her and we’d be worried that she’d swallow the damn coin (as we think she did with the tooth). Another little ritual of growing up that our darling girl won’t be participating in. But I’m not really sad or upset over that, just a little…. well, wistful.