November is a “hinge time” in the life of the world.
The Celts knew this. As the bonfires they used to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve smoldered, they prepared themselves for the encroaching shadows as the sun turned in early.
They hung their herbs in the house to scent the place and prepare for winter meals, and began to bolt their windows against the wind. They’d unpack the candles they had made from the fat of the Fall slaughter, and would begin to do the hard work of nesting in.
They knew that November marked the hinge between Fall and Winter, between light and shadows, between dying and sleep, and they embraced it the way that you embrace that necessary fallow time we all encounter in our lives.
It’s good to realize that some times in our lives will just be fallow. Embrace the rest. Use the reserves. And remember that this time has a beginning and an ending, like all things in life, with rebirth on the far side.
And it feels like a very large hinge time in these days.
That you were born and you will die. That you will sometimes love enough and sometimes not. That you will lie if only to yourself. That you will get tired. That you will learn most from the situations you did not choose. That there will be some things that move you more than you can say. That you will live that you must be loved. That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of your attention. That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg of two people who once were strangers and may well still be. That life isn’t fair. That life is sometimes good and sometimes better than good. That life is often not so good. That life is real and if you can survive it, well, survive it well with love and art and meaning given where meaning’s scarce. That you will learn to live with regret. That you will learn to live with respect. That the structures that constrict you may not be permanently constraining. That you will probably be okay. That you must accept change before you die but you will die anyway. So you might as well live and you might as well love. You might as well love. You might as well love.
Today the church commemorates All Soul’s Day, or “The Day of the Faithfully Departed.”
This festival day is a product of the evolution of the church and its understanding of the departed and how they play into the eschatological and cosmological understanding of all things.
If saints were those who led extraordinary lives, what about the rest of us?
All Souls Day is an answer to that question. Indeed, many people who aren’t technically “saints” in the narrow definition of the term have led wonderfully beautiful and impactful lives. All Souls attempts to honor that fact. It became common practice, for instance, to lift up particular benefactors of parishes on this day, giving a nod to those who made the physical (and spiritual) structures of the faith possible.
In a more pedestrian sense, All Souls Day is, at least for me, a day where we can all embrace the reality that, saint or not, people deserve to be remembered.
In my first parish we had these magnificent stained glass windows put in decades earlier. In them you could see glimpses of not only the artistry of the day, but you could also feel a sort of timelessness that was pervasive, connecting those who had first stared into and through those windows with me and my own children who looked at them now.
Good art does that: it creates connective tissue between the past and the ever-expanding future.
But All Souls Day is a reminder that good theology does that, too. We stand upon the beliefs of the past, hauling some of them with us, and leaving some on the path behind us as signs and markers of thoughts discarded and avenues that were dead-ends.
All Souls Day lifts up the very practical, very pious, and very pedestrian people on whose shoulders we stand. In this way it is even more meaningful than the pomp and circumstance of All Saints Day.
If All Saints Day is the fine-dining establishment in your city, All Souls Day is the little cafe you frequent where you know the owner, have a favorite booth, and don’t need to glance at the menu because you know it by heart.
In other words, All Souls Day is really where most of us will find ourselves: in the ordinary annals of a life that tried its best, did some great things, fell short quite a bit, but is remembered by a small, but faithful, group of loved ones who know our names.
For the ancient Celts, November was an important time to embrace the next season, the “shadow season” of the year.
They saw the world as having two light sources: the sun, and the hearth.
In the “light season” of the year they would gather around the sun: to play active games, to work hard, and to sweat.
In the “shadow season,” which November ushered in, they would gather around the hearth: to play quiet games, to do small hobbies and care for the family (cooking, cleaning, etc), and to tell and hear stories.
Each season had its own light source. Each season had its own purpose.
They also thought that November was a thin time in the calendar. While Samhain marked the thinnest time, November’s days were also seen as thin, being a time of transitions.
People born in November were thought to have a darker sense of humor and a penchant for forlornness.
More deaths were thought to happen in November. More big decisions made, ready to be executed in the next year.
November is a time of deepening transition as the earth slowly hardens in this hemisphere, and the light continues to dim.
The hearth is now our sun, around which we’ll all wrestle with some thoughts and decisions.
“Forget the hearth, Forget the roof, Set the wheel aside: Leave your weaving, Warp and woof, Steal out to us this Samhain-Tide.
Steal out to us, our tossing hair Sets sun and moon and stars aflare. The racing winds are hounds beside the cloud-maned horses that we ride. Come ride with us, have heart to dare the plunging steed; the steeps of air; the swirling, high, tumultuous flight, the aery hooves–this Samhain Night!”
O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall; Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all. The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go. O hushed October morning mild, Begin the hours of this day slow. Make the day seem to us less brief. Hearts not averse to being beguiled, Beguile us in the way you know. Release one leaf at break of day; At noon release another leaf; One from our trees, one far away. Retard the sun with gentle mist; Enchant the land with amethyst. Slow, slow! For the grapes’ sake, if they were all, Whose leaves already are burnt with frost, Whose clustered fruit must else be lost— For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
In reading up about Samhain in Celtic tradition, it’s believed that apple bobbing (called “apple dookin'” in Scotland) is a reminder of the journey across the seas that the ancestors took to find fresh fruit.
There was thought to be a magical land, Emhain Ablach, known as the “Island of Apples” that had wonderful apples that imparted wisdom to those lucky enough to find one.
It was also believed that the festival of Samhain taught humans about their “shadow-sides,” all the fears, misgivings, negativity, and unresolved issues within them that should be recognized, accepted, and reclaimed. Celtic wisdom taught that no person could be fully whole without their shadow side, and that ignoring or fighting against your shadow in such a way that you buried it created fragile beings who were easily broken by their ego, by other warriors, and by the hardships of the world.
Samhain, rather than insisting that you ignore the ugly side of your human nature, took you down into the depths of the fear (literally, tons of tales about descent into the pits of the world were told at Samhain) so that you could wrestle with yourself and wake up whole.
It sounds very Jungian, right?
It’s actually just ancient wisdom that we keep forgetting and “discovering” again and again…
For the ancient Celts, October was a special month. All hinge points in the wheel of the year were seen as an opening into the next phrase.
January is Winter’s portal into Spring. April is Spring’s portal into Summer. July is Summer’s portal into Autumn, and October is the Autumn portal into Winter.
But within those four portals there was seen to be two great portals: the invitation into the light, and the invitation into the shadows.
April, with it’s growing light as our star decided to hang around longer and longer each day, was an invitation into the light half of the year.
October, with it’s lingering moon, was an invitation into the shadow half of the year, and was known as the “season of frost and firelight.” Indeed: we’ve lit a fire the past few mornings in our own house.
The Celts called the festival at the end of October “Samhain” (pronounced “sow-wen” in Gaelic). It literally means “summer’s end.” This festival was Christianized around the 7th Century as Hallowmas (or All Hallow’s Eve) and, on November 1st, All Hallow’s Day (All Saints’ Day).
That phrase continued to evolve and is now colloquially Halloween.
Rather than some sort of time to celebrate evil or goblins or whatnot, Samhain was actually a time where the Celts explored and ushered in the gifts and mysteries of the shadow-half of the year.
Why do things seem to “go bump” in the night?
Why do we take fire for granted until we can’t see anything anymore?
What does it mean to take seriously the idea that rest and fallowness are necessary for life?
How does family time change when we’re all stuck inside, and what does that mean for us? Could it be possible that, in these intense family times, dead family members join us around the fire (as specters or ghosts)?
Why, in the shadows, are we more tempted to do what we should not? How do we ward off such tempters? (One solution was the Jack-o-lantern)
The shadow-side of the year, like our own shadow-sides, is not to be feared but, as the Celts did, explored and held and learned from.
The ancient Celts found October to rest under the Ivy Moon. Now half past the month, the harvest is pretty much done and everything is starting to wear its nakedness.
But they called this Autumn moon Ivy Moon because ivy has a difficult time dying, and can live on even after the host plant has died. Ivy, for them, was a reminder that everything goes on in some form or fashion: life, death, rebirth.
It’s the way of things.
Ivy is strong, evergreen, resilient. Though the Earth is wearing their nakedness in these days, Ivy reminds us that the wheel is turning, not dying. It is spinning, not stopping.
For the ancient Celts, October signaled the end of their Autumn and opened the door for the shadowed half of the Celtic year.
Samhain (which literally means “summer has ended”) marks the final feast day of the season, and the convergence of the shadows and the weather inclined the Celts to believe that spirits were able to walk among the living causing mischief, curses, and sometimes blessings.
Practically it meant bringing in the cattle and the sheep down from the summer hillside and into the byre and the stable, now full of the harvested hay brought in throughout August and September.
It was also the time to slaughter the animals and prep them to last as far through winter as possible with salts, cold storage, cottaging, and drying.
The very last bits of barley, wheat, turnips, and apples were picked from the now naked fields, because come November the faeries would start breathing on all the fruit, frosting them and making them inedible.
While the sun still glowed it was also time to get the wood and peat stacked and ready for use. No one wanted to chop and gather in the frigid days coming.
This was a joyous month for the Celts, as the whole family was regularly gathered in the house and the barn: baking, salting, prepping, and preserving, envisioning the coming winter feasts and the cozy days ahead.
The summer sun now became the warm, dim room, and the noisy insects would be replaced with long talks and stories from family and visiting friends.