I always find November bitter sweet. Gone is the warmth of the sun, its pale face now playing hide and seek among storm clouds that seem to constantly threaten snow or at best, a chill misty rain. The fun and magic of Halloween is past and although Christmas still lies ahead November is a dark stretch that looms with only a promise of long cold nights.
However, on the positive front November marks the seasonal festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-oon”) on the Celtic Wheel of the Year. Samhain traditionally heralded the start of the dark half of the Year, a time for slowing down and begin tending to our more inner fires. Situated between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, for the Celts, Samhain was similar to our New Year’s Day as the festival officially announced the arrival of winter.
November 1 is the actual date of Samhain but like other Celtic festivals it was celebrated on its eve, October 31. The Celts saw the darkness as a time when the ‘veils between the worlds’ were at their thinnest and ‘unquiet’ spirits could easily walk among us. Embedded in this ancient folklore then are the origins of our modern-day Halloween as a time of ghosts, goblins, fairies and all sorts of Otherworldly folk at large.
But it is primarily the absence of the Sun, or more specifically the Sun God, who is reborn at the winter solstice, that the Celts were really paying homage to this time of year. The Sun God was symbolically sacrificed with the final reaping of the summer crops. With his most potent energy now spent and his purpose as consort to the Goddess of the land fulfilled, the fall harvest was both a celebration and a wake – a time to gather summer’s bounty but recognize that survival during the coming winter depended on how well the dying God had performed his duties.
Many ancient folk customs involved burning a God-figure in effigy or braiding corn dollies from the wheat of the final harvest. It was believed that the essence of the God lived on in the last remaining stalks and if the dolly was hung indoors throughout the winter it would protect the home and its inhabitants from hunger and cold. The ‘dolly’ was then buried or given back to the land in the spring to fertilize the awakening energies of the Goddess. The Celts intuitively understood that it is in the darkness of the ‘womb or tomb’ that new life is created or reborn. It is also in the darkness of the earth that diamonds are formed. And so it is for us too.
By embracing the dark rather than resenting it (or worse, running from it) we can use this time to honour the beginning of yet another circuit of the great Wheel of Life. Even Nature needs a ‘time-out’ and we would do well to follow her example. After her grand expenditure of energy producing flowers, fruit and new generations of animal life, she is in need of a good rest. This is also the time of year when she cleans house. Not only do the leaves drop but often the sick, the frail and the elderly too. It is all part of natural law. And it can be a valuable lesson for human kind, reminding us that we too need to to take our own ‘time-out’ by recognizing what no longer serves us, what needs to be released, what needs to be honoured for all that it has provided and what can be carried forward with hope for renewal in the coming year.
When the dull and dreary pre-Christmas countdown is looked at in this new ‘light’, I find it all the more bearable… even when Nature decides to start the ‘wake’ a little early with a surprise snowfall! But as a Maori proverb says: “turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you”. At this time of year I always make sure there is a candle burning both at home and in my studio, ready to welcome the Sun God when he wakes from his long nap and any passers-by in need of some warmth, beauty and good conversation.