Monday, 31 October 2011

It's Samhain - Happy New Year!


For the pagan Celts, the year began in winter, not spring. Their world-view celebrated dark times, recognising that life itself comes from darkness and a dormant seed.

The Celt's name for the first season of their year was Samhain, which is still the Irish language word for November. The festival that began their year was Oíche Shamhna. Samhain Night. It still goes by the same name here in Corca Dhuibhne. 

When Christianity came to Ireland the Celts' Oíche Shamhna became Halloween, the Christian feast of All Souls. But for thousands of years, throughout Ireland, it's been celebrated with rituals older than Christianity - bonfires, candles stuck in turnip heads, and masked visits to the neighbours.

Modern trick or treating is an echo of the ancient Celtic belief that on Oíche Shamhna the spirits of the dead returned to the homes they'd once lived in. People believed that - provided the living recognised and respected their ancestors' presence - the dead would protect them. So each year the dead were welcomed with food, fires, music and dancing. That way they they wouldn't get offended. And get nasty.

And each year, in every neighbourhood, young men, wearing masks, went from one house to another acting out the annual ritual of threat and appeasement, fear and trust.

When I first went to London I remember being astonished when people said Halloween was an import from America. It may have returned to England from America fairly recently. But it's rooted in Europe's Celtic heritage...

... though, having said that, I remember my own first Halloween mask was a cardboard Micky Mouse.

I wore it with a black polo-neck and tights, white gloves, and a long tail made of wool stiffened with wire from a straightened-out coat-hanger. Then my mother made me add a dark-grey duffel coat, with the hood up. Which definitely spoiled the effect.

On the other hand, I liked the sinister way my black tail showed under my coat when I turned away from the neighbours' doors with my pockets full of apples and monkey-nuts. I was a mouse that you wouldn't risk offending.

Then, back home, we'd sit by the fire drinking tea, eating brack, and cracking monkey-nuts with our teeth. None of which was easy to do through a Micky Mouse mask.

Masked kids knocking on the door and music playing are still part of Oíche Shamhna here in Ireland. 

Yesterday  I bought monkey-nuts at the post office. This morning I made a brack, dark with brown sugar and packed with the slow-release energy of raisins, currants and sultanas. Tonight we'll eat them by the fire, drinking strong tea and chucking nut-shells into the flames.

An open fire's not the most efficient, or cost-effective, system. But gnarled branches of fuchsia burn well when the sap's dried out of them. And the ash-trees throw down rotten branches for kindling. And, for thousands of years, living flames have been images of life itself. 

I remember our neighbour, Jack, coming into the house here one November day, and stretching his hand to the turf fire. It was chilly outside and the flames had burnt low. So I threw another sod on it. We watched red fire curl round black turf as the new sod took life from the old ones. The flames began to crackle and burn yellow. Then Jack said what we both were thinking ...

... 'you'd like to be looking at it'.

And the flames leapt up, releasing new life from the dark turf, compacted of fragrant herbs and ancient flowers.


4 comments:

  1. Love your blog! And of course your writing
    As I sat down this morning I read the post on the Camp Cow fun day
    We have driven through Camp so many times in our travels over there and who knew about the squares for $20.00
    I always ask my hubby "what do people do around here for fun". There's no real Malls as we have close by, no cinema,
    Now I know - they bet on cows!
    hubby and I spoke this morning about living that life- and planting potatoes with seaweed (which we both had never heard of)
    And saying how wonderful it would be-
    Thanks for sharing a little part of your world.

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  2. So pleased you like it. And I really appreciate you saying so!

    You're right, it's wonderful living here. And the unexpected, unplanned-for stuff is best of all. We've just come in from visiting a neighbour who keeps open house for musicians every Monday. Everyone was sitting round the fire, listening and playing, when we were invaded by a hoard of small girls in Halloween costumes who danced and sang for half an hour before disappearing into the night with a handful of sweets between them. And, to make it better still, we'd gone into the neighbour's house in thick mist, but came out to a clear night of frosty stars and a beautiful walk down the mountain.

    Thanks again for your comment. Hope you get to come back soon. Maybe when the frost's gone and the primroses are out again in springtime.

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  3. What a beautiful, poetic post. Celtic traditions speak to me in a much stronger way than the Americanized holidays I am used to. The cycles of birth, death and rebirth seem so much easier to understand and celebrate. I hope you have a wonderful Samhain evening thinking about the past year's blessings while cracking nuts in front of your turf fire tonight. Slainte. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Sophie. Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís - may we all be alive this time next year :)

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