Samhain - pronounced 'sow-in' is the original Halloween. The ancient Celt's celebration was heavily linked with nature and the seasons and offers us some important reflections for this time of year.
I've also prepared some journal prompts for you to do once you've read through the info below.
What is Samhain?
For Iron Age Celtic Pagans, it was the most important festival of the year. They celebrated it as their new year; it is a time of both death and rebirth, something that was doubly symbolic because it coincided with the end of a bountiful harvest season and the beginning of a cold and dark winter.
The Celtic year was divided into two halves — light and dark, which were delineated by two of their four annual fire festivals. Samhain, the fire festival that marked the beginning of the dark half of the year, is situated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
Encyclopedia Britannica notes that, during this festival, the world of the gods “was believed to be made visible to humankind,” leading to supernatural tricks and trouble; ghosts of the dead and spirits from the Otherworld were also thought to return to the earth during Samhain. To appease deities during this time, sacrifices (generally of crops and animals) were burned in bonfires as a protective measure from evil otherworldly beings. Offerings were left out for other visiting mischievous spirits. Tricks and pranks were often played but blamed on fairies and spirits during the three-day period when the line between the two worlds blurred.
The spiritual undertones of the Samhain festival also lent themselves to looking to the future, an appropriate activity for the start of the Celtic new year. At the bonfires of the festival, fortune-telling was done alongside sacrifices, and many participants also donned costumes, often masquerading as animals or beasts, in hopes of fooling spirits who might want to harm them.
Acknowledging Death as part of the cycle of life
Modern British culture is pretty bad at talking about death, unlike other traditions – e.g. Mexican ‘day of the dead’ festival, which creates an added sense of fear and unhealthy repression around the subject. Samhain is the perfect time of year to embrace the concept as we are fully in Autumn and nature is showing us that letting go, wilting and decaying are all part of the cycle of life.
The leaves that fall at this time of year become nourishment for the trees as they decompose and become part of the earth once again.
Earth to earth; we can find comfort in the idea of returning home to the earth. “You did not come into this world, you came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” – Alan Watts.
At this time we can consider the death of parts of our lives; behaviours, relationships or ways of thinking – what might we need to let go of so that we can make space for something new or allow change to occur?
The awareness of death as something that comes to us all can be frightening but also clarifying; it can highlight what is important. You don’t get this moment again. Be fully present to it. Allow it to be as it is.
Embracing the dark
Instead of fearing or complaining about the darker half of the year, the festival of Samhain encourages us to celebrate it. “Light is born of darkness” – recognising the necessity of night and winter can help us to accept and embrace it.
Winter is a time to turn inward – this means being with our feelings and tending to our minds and hearts. I think this is why a lot of people fear it. Can we allow ourselves to welcome this opportunity to befriend ourselves, to sit with ourselves in the dark?
There is less sunlight and therefore less energy this time of year – nature doesn’t fight this, it accepts it and adjusts accordingly. It takes energy to grow leaves and flowers, so it will take a break from all that and allow itself to be changed by the seasons. There is no expectation to be the same all year round in nature.
Integrating the shadow
As a therapist I couldn't write about embracing darkness without touching on the ‘shadow self’. Our shadow is the unconscious (out of our awareness), rejected parts of ourselves. Just as we have recognised that we need to embrace darkness and death as part of life, we need to integrate our shadow into our consciousness to become whole. Perhaps noticing that nature does this can help us to do the same. Doing this work can help us feel less afraid of our own 'dark sides' and of darkness in general.
Make yourself cosy and get your journal out for some Samhain themed reflections. Let me know if you try them; I'd love to know what Samhain is teaching you!
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