Celebrating the Dead… And the Ending of the Year

We had come together to celebrate Calan Gaeaf – Samhain to some – to many simply ‘Hallowe’en’ – in a place hidden away, where earth lies damp, trees grow tall in the sheltered cleft of a mountainside and the ancient rocks of North West Wales tumble and scatter in unfathomable cosmic patterns.

It was sunny and as warm as midsummer as we drove to our chosen woodland. Once out of the car and among the trees the stillness and silence enveloped us as we made our way along the path, pausing on the bridge over the lively little river in the bottom of the valley and again beside the Guardian Tree of the wood – a mighty and ancient oak.

Gathering in the peace of the woods

Gathering in the peace of the woods

Finding our space (a clearing beneath some stately oaks, fringed by birch, hazel and holly), we cast our circle of protection, called for Peace, honoured the Spirits of Direction and Elements and called upon our Ancestors of Blood, Place and Heritage. Here we stopped to think and to remember all those who have passed over to the Otherside – friends, family, loved ones, and those much longer gone but still remembered… and those now gone so far back into the mists of time that there is no viable trace, but without whose being we ourselves would not exist. We shared memories and told and re-told stories about them; snippets of other lives and times coloured and kept fresh by our love and appreciation, like bees encased in amber. Some were named aloud. Other names we wrote upon coloured leaves of card to be later hung in remembrance upon our Ancestor Tree back at home. Tears and the drifting leaves of a dying season mingled softly as they landed to create a new carpet upon the woodland floor.

We lit our fire upon the bare earth. At this ending of the cycle of the seasons which have journeyed in turn from intention to planting, through germination, growth and maturity to harvest, we assessed our own past year – our challenges, shortcomings and triumphs… our lessons learnt. We looked deep into ourselves to more fully understand how this dying time of year affects us and makes us feel. We asked ourselves what no longer serves us – what we wish to discard from the past year. Each taking dry leaves to symbolize such, we cast them into the flames and witnessed the fire transmute their energy. And we took up other leaves, naming them for those qualities which we definitely wish to carry forwards with us into the coming new cycle of seasons. These we placed in the small black metal cauldron where they will lie in dormant potentiality until the time comes to release their influence with the rebirth of the mighty Sun/Son at Midwinter.

We called upon our God(s)/Divine Spirit(s) to help support and guide us through the coming time of darkness and chaos and banged our drums, blew horns, rang bells, shouted and hooted a hullabaloo of acknowledgement and release as we placed the Spirit of the Dying Year (a small wild form fashioned from stalks, twigs and dried flower petals of the past summer) upon our all consuming fire.

A rich sticky dark parkin (ginger cake made with molasses and oats) was shared with the Earth and all living things with the circle, including our two golden Labrador dogs! Bread baked by me, honey from my sons’ bee hives, wine brewed by my husband and salt was also offered to the Spirits of the Land, while we indulged in beakers of hot spiced elderberry juice brought back from a recent visit to my husbands’ family in Germany.

And then the deep, vibrating, cascading notes of the chanting of ‘Awen’ resounding through the trees, resonating into the Earth – a simple but deeply heartfelt request for divine inspiration and support at this time.

For here we enter the darkest time of the year. As the veils between this world of the living and the world of the dead – and many other realms of existence besides – thin and draw aside, plains of being draw close to one another… and sometimes collide. Hence the fancy dress and disguise of ‘Hallowe’en’ as people (in years past adults, not children) strive to hide themselves from beings from the Other Worlds. This is a time of being stripped bare. Of chaos. Of the old order being dissolved and society… life… being temporarily turned on its head. We go naked and vulnerable into Cerridwens’ Cauldron of Rejuvenation and Rebirth, having left the dross behind with only the valuable gifts of experience, anticipation, gratitude and courage to re-clothe and drive us forward. We can now anticipate a time of inner rest, nurture and retrenchment.

Closing our circle, dousing the embers of our fire with water from the river and carefully covering the ashes over with leaves once more we left the clearing in the wood as if we had never been there. The sun had long since dipped behind the crest of the abutting mountain and dusk was quickly gathering, ground mist rising over the fields and shadows lacing through the trees as we made our way back along the woodland path to our waiting car.

Once home again the day took on a completely different tone! All the family flew around the house lighting candles, lanterns and incense and setting out the trays of cakes and sweets with which to welcome the various groups of ‘Trick or Treaters’ already noisily prowling the dark village roads. Throwing a cloth on the table in the living room and setting an extra place for departed family members to come and join us for dinner, our tasks of boiling kettles for hot drinks and setting other pots and pans of pumpkin soup and chilli beans to heat upon the aga were frequently interrupted by knocks at the front door which summoned one or all of us to go and witness the excitement, trepidation and courage as tiny ‘ghosts’, ‘skeletons’ and ‘monsters’ dared themselves and each other to step over our threshold and retrieve their goodies from the baskets which were firmly clasped on the knee of my sons’ medical skeleton who was currently be-cloaked and sitting waiting on a chair in the hall.

Older children came further into the hall to look with some wonder at our decorated hall table with its autumnal fairy lights, Ancestor Tree covered in leaves and paper ‘remembrances’, photos, candles and incense. They listened, quite amazed, to my brief explanation of some of the historical background to their otherwise apparently frightening, wild and unrestrained celebrations.

As the time ticked away into mid-evening, the knocks at the door subsided, mist swathed the valley and, as the sound of raucous yells and calls of over-stimulated youngsters faded away, silence and stillness once more descended like a thick heavy curtain. Meanwhile, the other Veils continued to thin as our world and many others became conjoined.

Some people hold the view that this ancient festival is ‘evil’ which greatly saddens me. Periodically over the teatime ‘Trick or Treating’ period I would go to the back door and joyously listen to the laughter, banter, jokes and greetings being called out around the village – accompanying adults, it seems, were almost as excited as their off-spring! But surely, anything that brings people together and engenders and encourages that precious sense of ‘community’ – a community innocently identifying with and enjoying itself – is to be lauded and supported? Also, how are children expected to do aught else except run riot around the streets when the adults themselves have long forgotten the deeper spiritual meanings behind the custom and fail to teach them any alternative?

I hope that you had a wild and wonderful ‘Hallowe’en’ – now enjoy the quiet and the dark!

And if anyone has succeeded in reading through to the end here, and wishes to comment or ask me for more information or clarification, you are very welcome to do so…

1 thought on “Celebrating the Dead… And the Ending of the Year”

  1. Herbary says:

    What a lovely ritual it was. Those woods were positively alive on Monday… Thanks for holding such a lovely celebratory space for us!

    *And congratulations on getting back into blogging!

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