Happy Samhain!


This time of year has always been filled with excitement and anticipation for me: Not because it’s getting close to Christmas (or that my birthday is just over a week away), but rather the sudden turn to the Dark of the Year with the clocks going back signals the season of Mischief & Misrule; the air tinged with the scent of bonfire and fireworks.

It’s the season of witchery and the unquiet dead, the boundary between the Worlds grows thin; The liminal becoming central.

Back before the commercialised American “Trick or Treat” version of Halloween got a footing over here, the British celebration of All Hallows’ Eve held closer to its pagan roots – We had never seen a Pumpkin lantern, instead we had the hard work of hollowing out a turnip for our Jack O’ Lanterns.

Dressing up and guising were part and parcel of the Halloween party, the community getting together for apple bobbing and scaring the life out of the littl’uns with scary stories and blindfold buffets of eyeballs (peeled grapes), brains (jelly and blancmange) and guts (cold spaghetti). Toffee apples and candyfloss were prized rewards.

Being so close to Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes coming second fiddle to the main attraction, ostensibly kindled in his memory), Halloween was just the beginning of the Burning Season. The Old pre-Christian tradition of the Samhain Bonfire was given historical legitimacy in the name of Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, thus riding Fawkes’ burning coat tails into the twentieth century. The firm grip of Authority was relaxed and children were given free reign to roam the streets in gangs, seeking funding for their explosive plans.

I’m old enough to remember when kids used to build – what basically amounts to a scarecrow – a set of clothes stuffed with crumpled newspaper or straw, topped by a pillow-case head (with or without hat) which would be carted by wheelbarrow to the high street, to petition passers-by for a “penny for the Guy”; the objective being funds for fireworks to set off as our guy sat upon his immolation. Living in a big city, this tradition seems to have died out, which is a pity. The small community bonfire and fireworks display having been superceded by larger, commercially run events.

Being honest, this kind of autonomy for the young is probably the core of that excitement sparked by the scent of woodsmoke in the dark. From mid-teens onward the Mischief & Misrule turned toward booze and snogging (making out). Oh, how grown up we felt, this week or two of self-rule providing an officially endorsed blind-eye turned toward such merriment: the Dark concealing a multitude of delicious sins.

In the Old Ways, the Pagan calendar, this is the time where the harvest is in and the livestock raised to see you through winter are slaughtered. By Midwinter Solstice you’ll know if you’re likely to make it through the dead of the year, but for now there is a glut, the bounty of the harvest still fresh and sweet – last year’s brewery strong and matured.

Can’t beat it.

No wonder the Celts held it as their New Year festival… their mastery of the Party Idiom is legend.

As a final treat, allow me to offer you this round-up of Dark of the Year traditions from the British Isles (although it doesn’t mention Up Helly Aa)


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