As part of my Year of Living Seasonally project, I am going to try and spend more time outside observing the seasons and their impact on my surroundings. All too often I spend time outside rushing from one place to the next, or working at something but not really BEING outside. So around noon today I spent about 45 minutes in my garden, just looking, listening. Much of what I saw I expected to see, falling leaves with such a glorious spectrum of colours from green to gold to copper to every shade of brown and finally to black before they decay completely. The last few vivid yellow berries on the rowan tree in the middle of the lower garden, a contrast to the vibrant blue sky. The starkness of branches no longer clothed in leaves but standing naked in the November garden.
However I also saw a few things I wasn’t expecting to see: a buttercup in flower, a dandelion holding on to its last few seeds, rose buds on my daughter’s rose bush. Today is November 3rd, Samhain has passed, according to the Celtic calendar we are now in the season of winter. But how much can we take the changing of the seasons for what they used to be? Last week (the last week of October) was incredibly mild, both here in Ireland and in parts of England. I saw a news report from the Tower of London with people in tshirts and shorts. It was 24 degrees!!! It wasn’t that warm here, but average temperatures here last week were around 16 or 17 degrees. Yes, while people were commenting on this, no one seemed terribly surprised. Our climate is most certainly changing. What will living seasonally mean in thirty years time?
Part of my Year of Living Seasonally project is to cook ritual foods. Some people are spooked (how appropriate for today!) by the word ritual. Just stop and think for a minute though about the foods we only eat at certain times. I’m not talking eating that food which is in season, but rather those recipes, dishes that we usually only have on certain dates or occasions. Like Christmas pudding. Or hot cross buns. Or simnel cake. Or brack – barmbrack to give it the full name. These are dishes that for various reasons have become synonymous with these feast days and celebrations. The history and symbolism of ritual foods fascinates me and I thought it would be interesting to incorporate it into the project.
Barmbrack (in Irish bairín breac) would traditionally have some items hidden in it which if you found them were meant to signify something that would happen to you over the coming year. The items and their meanings vary from region to region and over time, but the best known one was a ring, which mean the finder would be married within the year. Other items that I have heard or read of being included were a rag, a holy medal, a thimble, a pea and a coin. The meanings of these vary considerably and I could probably write a thesis on that alone.
In my local supermarket today there were piles of round bracks selling at €1 each. I don’t know if people don’t eat brack anymore or if people still make their own but I did notice that there were very few of the packets of ‘Hallowe’en cupcakes’ and ‘Toffee Terror Treats’ left. I do have a sweet tooth, but honestly cupcakes with orange and black icing say precisely nothing about Hallowe’en and Samhain. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy middle aged woman, I think it would be a shame if we lost these food traditions.
I made two bracks today, one a traditional Irish recipe and the other is an apricot and orange brack. My lovely stepdaughter gave me a recipe for apricot and orange brack last year which was utterly gorgeous but I can’t find it now (sorry R!) so I followed this recipe here from Crafty Mums and the other one is from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Its the Irish Tea Barmbrack recipe rather than her Hallowe’en Barmbrack one which is a yeast recipe (I might make that one next year!) We’ve only tasted one yet but they both look and smell good!
Jack O Lanterns in Ireland and Scotland were traditionally made from turnips (pumpkins not being a native crop to either country). I haven’t made one this year, although I did buy a pumpkin…… I’ll make something from it on Sunday. Maybe. It looks gorgeous sitting on my table though!
Oh and if anyone has any ritual food recipes they’d like to share, please do get in touch 🙂
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.
I’m not sure exactly when or why the idea of living seasonally took hold with me but I’ve been thinking about it for the last few weeks. It occurs to me that for all that I live in a rural part of the world, and grow vegetables and fruit and mark certain calendar occasions, I am a bit distanced from actually LIVING seasonally. So what do I mean by living seasonally? If you Google the term ‘living seasonally’ a lot of sites come up, many of them to do with food – cooking seasonal produce and not using food that has been shipped halfway around the world just so we can have strawberries and asparagus all year round. Other sites focus on the natural cycles of night and day, of the moon and of the seasons and how they can impact on our health and wellbeing. I found Mountain Spring Herbals very interesting on this front. There are a number of sites which look at the idea of living seasonally from a homesteading/simpler life perspective. One I like is Little House in the Suburbs, escaping from the Rat Race has long appealed to me and its no surprise that The Good Life has long been one of my favourite TV programmes.
But back to living seasonally. How many times do you find yourself saying “I don’t know where this year has gone” or “How can it be [insert relevant month here] already?” My beloved and much-missed Granny always said that time – and by this she meant the years – passed more quickly as you got older. At 43 I now understand what she meant. I am frequently running to catch up with myself, always jumping from one project to the next, never taking time to really stop. Anyone reading this who knows me well is well aware of this! But I’m getting tired of that and I need to change things a bit. So for the next year I’m going to live seasonally as much as I can. You could call it living in the moment either I suppose. As someone who is fascinated by history, by myth and legend my head spends a fair amount of time in the past. On the other hand my involvement in my community and interest in politics keeps my head looking to the future a lot. None of which leaves a whole lot of time for the here and now.
My version of living seasonally – and this is just what suits me, its not a prescription for anyone else to follow – is to spend more time aware of the seasons, of the changes. Over the next year I will try to spend some time outside every day. I will explore ways of marking certain calendar dates and rituals that appeal to me, without strictly adhering to any one belief system. I will try and eat more seasonally (and hopefully better). Cooking is no hardship for me, I love trying out new recipes and new ingredients. I will observe the physical changes each season brings to my little piece of the planet. And I will come on here and share it all with you!
I’ve titled this post a Year of Living Seasonally which implies this will finish in a year – 365 days, 12 months, 4 seasons whatever way you like to mark the passage of time. That is my plan. I’m starting this project in 2 days time – this is just a little taster – when here in Ireland and in other countries too – it will be Hallowe’en, or All Hallows Eve. But it is also the festival – or cross quarter day – of Samhain, which for many marks the start of the Celtic New Year. Many of the Pagan or Wiccan persuasions also mark this festival as the start of the year.
Now I could here get into a whole big long discussion about how we mark the passing of time and how dates and calendars are somewhat artificial but I won’t (I might come back to that in the future though). Suffice it to say that I like this time of year – the start of the darker half of the year, the approach of winter, the end of the harvest season and I like to mark it as the start of a new year. (I mark the more usual New Year in January too). Its a time to reflect, to rest, to ponder the quietness and the darkness that winter ushers in. That’s what I need to do right now. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about it.
I used to make resolutions every New Year. They weren’t terribly original, lose weight (uh yeah no progress there), get fit (see above), become more organised (getting somewhere with this one), etc etc etc. Now there are lots of reasons why I – and let’s face it most of us – don’t keep our New Year resolutions and I’m not going to list them here, any magazine or newspaper will have had at least one article along these lines over the last while. But it occurred to me a few years ago that one possible reason why I’ve never managed to keep said resolutions is that 31st December doesn’t really sit well with me. I’ve never been a fan of big NYE parties, or of gathering together with a bunch of randomers to watch the clock turn round, and I cringe at Auld Lang Syne. (I’m always reminded of Queen Elizabeth’s expression at the millenium celebrations)
I love Christmas/Yuletide/Midwinter/whatever you’re having yourself and mark a lot of festival days throughout the year in my own little way. So its not that I’m a bah humbug (or whatever the NYE equivalent would be). I am a demon for making to-do lists and plans and schemes so resolutions should come easy to me. I think there’s two reasons why 31st Dec doesn’t really do it for me. Firstly, and this is something that I have become more aware of in the last few years, its an artificial time to start a year. Its the middle of a season, so not a natural time for a break or change. The Celtic New Year happens at Samhain – 1st Nov. Its the traditional start of winter but rather than being a time to start new projects or plans, Samhain is a time to reflect and relax, to look inward and to retreat somewhat. Most definitely not a time for making big changes.
Secondly, its just another day – there is nothing special about New Year’s except that the calendar changes from one year to the next. And remember that the naming and numbering of days months and years is just a structure that humankind has created. It could be argued that it bears no relation to anything in nature and the passing of the seasons. I love history and as such am very aware of dates, centuries and the passing of time. But to create a big celebration around the fact that a system we have created in order to keep track of events has just done what it does each day seems a little odd to me.
And that’s why I think I’ve never had much success with New Year’s resolutions. Its too artificial for me. That’s not to say my mind doesn’t stray to all kinds of ideas and plans in late December but I don’t make any resolutions anymore. Talk to me at Imbolc though and that might be a whole other thing…….
Oh – and Happy New Year!