Samhain, the thinning of the veils and why darkness is important.
Samhain, the Summer’s End of the Celtic peoples, is almost upon us. You might know it better as Hallow E’en or All Hallow’s Eve. The plethora of parties and pumpkins these days masks the traditional view of the day as both the gateway to winter and the time when the veils between the worlds became thin and the dead can visit with the living. There is a mountain of folklore and tales of this time and the church too marks it as a time of remembrance, for marking the passing of those we have loved and remembering them with rituals designed to bring peace and ease to both sides of the veils.
When we lived in rural Norfolk the first time, most Samhains were spent over in the garden of my friend Sam, with a bonfire and story telling into the night. Food was left out for the ancestors visiting with us at that time and candles burned on every window ledge. It was a magical, somewhat spooky time that I look back on with great fondness. The darkness was not to be feared, yet a frisson of fright certainly made me shiver more than once.
I struggle with winter more and more as I get older. The drawing in of the nights bothers me, and I have a SAD lamp on my desk for the days when the dull grey light seems to send me into a low mood. Yet there is a specialness to the darker days that I cherish too. There is the sense of retreating into a cave, of becoming inward and deeply thoughtful. I like my own rituals of lighting candles on the mantle-piece as the light fades each afternoon. I sleep a little better when the morning light does not appear at 4am to disturb my sleep cycles (indeed, sleeping in a fully darkened room is recommended to reset unsettled sleep patterns as the brain chemicals needed for decent sleep are only produced in darkness). I like the spectacle of the trees shedding their leaves in a flurry of colour and crispness and I love the clear naked shapes of winter woodland. Everything is stripped to the bone and you can start to see what is real, what is the foundation of a land and what was the ephemeral loveliness of petal and foliage. Readying a garden for winter means clearing away dead growth to the ground and in doing so, one usually sees the tiny points of bulbs poised and ready for spring.
Storytelling has been a huge part of human life as winter draws on. Sitting at a fire, telling tales to while away the long nights, connects us to our ancestors and makes a continuous line that stretches in both directions. At Samhain, ghost stories are the most popular tales, intended to terrify and tantalise. I’ve seen enough weird things in my life to accept the probable existence of ghosts and spirits, though I would not like to define precisely what they are. My father would maintain they are an etheric recording of past events, imprinted on stone and brick and the fabric of a place; others would say they are indeed the spirits of the departed, allowed to communicate with the living.
Light is important, but so too is darkness. Darkness allows us to rest, whether from our labours or from our woes. For me, when I am depressed, sleep is the most accessible refuge from the internal pain. Night is when many creatures are able to move and feed and live their lives. I’ve rescued (so far) two young hedgehogs, which had lost their mother, and each evening now I go into the garden with a torch to see if any more little hoglets are in need of assistance. I do not fear the darkness for it is a kinder thing than people believe.
In honour of the season, I am hosting a virtual party on Facebook, on Friday 31st of October. The party is an opportunity to share stories, music, recipes, anecdotes and fellowship. It’s also to celebrate the release of a new book of mine, called The Hedgeway. It’s a longer short story or short novella, intended for this time of year. It also connects me to my own past. The original story was one I wrote at 17, and which turned up after our last house move. I could see that even then my ‘voice’ was distinct and recognisable. I rewrote the whole story, keeping the central idea and characters but otherwise reworking the whole thing. The Hedgeway is a ghost story that connects past to present in more ways than one. For the season of Samhain it’s going to be on sale at the price of just 77p (or local equivalent) for a limited time.
Do join us at the party and do some virtual apple bobbing with us, and share your favourite scary tales, your own ones welcome as well as the traditional ones by classic authors like M.R James.