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The Dark Part of our Year

Our sun once marked worktime, rest-time, its presence divided our year into summer and winter, it told us the time to grow, the time to harvest. It’s increasing light and warmth from springtime through summer gave hope of new life, light,and a knowledge that a time of abundance would follow. It's journey away from us in winter told us of harder times, coldness and dark. Nowadays we seem to miss so much of what our sun is telling us, unlike our ancestors who lived their lives by it. Many of us have instant light and warmth at the flick of a switch, we farm and grow throughout the year, we have constant availability of food, we have a health service to help see us through winters. But in these times when we hear of humankind using siege tactics as a weapon of choice to take away these ‘basics’ we begin to realise our fragility when we are left without the things many of us take for granted.

As winter moves towards, as our sun moves away, we do not rest. We ignore our deep seated feelings.

We can read in old Irish texts that Gaelic people would light bonfires at this time of the year, marking the death of summer and heralding the beginning of a new year that starts with winter. This seems an incredibly positive outlook at a time that would have been the hardest time for survival through cold, hunger and winter illnesses.

When it feels difficult to feel positive about turning towards the dark part of the year I think about these ancestors and see wisdom in their outlook and their observation and listening to our mother nature and our sun. If we can in some small way try to take back time from our busy schedules to rest, listen and observe we may see the dark months as an opportunity to attend to the needs of our bodies, our wellbeing, the wellbeing of others and of our Earth.

The bright colours and heady scents of summer may have gone, the swallows may have returned to warmer climes along with many other of our summer migrants, our sun is noticeably getting more distant, paler, and lacking vibrancy but all we need do is look a little closer at what nature in winter has to offer us.

Now is the time of toadstools, mists, changing colour leaves, seeing our trees in their winter majesty, dark skies broken by spirit like barn owls, tawny’s serenading the night, deer silently moving in wooded border lands, headlights catching a flash of russet fox and of course a sky full of stars. It’s time to really make the most of daylight hours with ‘wrapped-up’ – ‘whatever the weather’ walks, and to celebrate the ever-increasing night-time with hot toddies, ‘curled-up’ stories, preparing for the many festivities of these months through food preserving, gift making & creating natural decorations to adorn and brighten not only our homes but our lives too.

Accept that winter activities are different to summer ones, allow an excitement to enter your life as a new time is coming as the wheel of the year turns once more in its ever perpetual cycle. Experience the joy of getting cosy & snuggly, big socks, soft jumpers, scarves, gloves & hats adorning extremities in outlandish colours, pom-pom’s & patterns and cinnamon buns, blankets and hot chocolate.

The name Samhain, ‘summer’s end’ was attributed to the 1st of November by Gaelic and Celtic people with the tradition of celebrating on the eve of the event upheld, making 31st of October a night to mark. Fires were extinguished and new one’s built in communities. Known as a ‘forced fire’ it was ignited by friction as was a tradition for sacred fires. It is recorded that a wheel was used with a spindle in the middle which were moved in opposing directions to create the spark.The wheel was seen as a symbol of the sun moved sunwise.

The fire was ‘shared’ amongst the community to light their own hearths on the following morning. It was believed this special 'New Year’s’ fire would not only warm the home but protect it.  

It is unclear if the association we now have of death and spirits at this time of year originates from our ancestor’s belief that the sun was dying as it moved into a new realm or if the darkness, the high mortality rate, or this being a time to slaughter animals as food led to these associations. Or perhaps it was influenced from the customs and beliefs of the people that conquered and settled in our Isles such as the Roman’s & Vikings. This was accompanied by an idea that ‘the veil’ was thinnest between the realms of the spirits and the living and that it was a potent time for ‘seers’ to find out about the future. 'Torches were lit and carried around fields in a sunwise direction to protect them from malevolent spirits, charms were worn of fern and hemp and dreams at this time were considered prophetic.' Immortal Hour, Sharp

“How many times the Church has decanted the new wine of Christianity into the old bottles of heathendom.” Samhain and other variations of marking summer’s end were to become Christianised with a period of days beginning with All Hallows Eve(31st), All Hallows Day/Saints Day (1st Nov) and All Souls Day (2nd Nov). The church carried on the tradition of lighting bonfires but now as a means of lighting the way for souls to pass through Purgatory to Heaven. Torches and candles were lit too as prayers and petitions were made. The old ways and the new became blended into a time of commemoration of death and the hope of better things to come.

We now move forward to more recent and our own time when October 31st is popularly known as Hallowe’en (the eve of All Hallows).

Folklore traditions abound at Halloween particularly relating to divinisation usually to discover the name of a future partner, as protection or as a predictor of wealth, health, or death. Apples and nuts were often used as a medium to foretell things. Nuts put in a fire in pairs, or in some customs in threes, could foretell the relationship a couple would have. If they burnt to ashes, a long and happy life together was predicted. If they crackle and move from one another then unhappiness, quarrels and separation was foretold and if the fire ‘spat the out’ then no future together was the prediction. In parts of Scotland, it was thought that children born on Halloween could converse with supernatural powers. It was not only ghosts, witches, devils and demons that were feared but also those that lived in the realms of the fey.

One woman in Scotland reported ‘I have tied a red thread round the bains’ throats, and given ilk ane of them a ride-wand of rowan tree, forbye sewing a slip of witch-elm into their doublets’ such was the fear that babies would be snatched and easily transported into faerie mounds, never to return. Equally children and brides were at risk of being taken.

And so all we have to decide is how we will mark this time of the year to keep alive old ways and celebrate the new. Do we turn to the traditions of our ancestors and have a bonfire or light some flame to mark the decline of our sun? Keep mischievous spirits at bay? Remember those who have passed? Do we feast and make merry and give thanks for the bounty in our lives to see us through winter? Do we get ‘crafty’ and make decorations from natural materials we collect on long walks in nature? Do we try and foretell our futures or reflect on our past? Do we cause mischief, scare ourselves with ghost stories & haunting tunes? Do we hold a ceremony that acknowledges the struggles of others and sends wishes on the winter storms for peace? Or do we simply rest, reflect, and rekindle a love of the dark months? I leave you with a poem from 1910 that gives a few insights and suggestions…..

“Bring forth the raisins and the nuts-

Tonight All Hallows’ Spectre struts

Along the moonlit way.

No time is this for tear or sob,

Or other woes our joys to rob,

But time for Pippin and for Bob,

And Jack-o-lantern gay.

Come forth, ye lass and trousered kid,

From prisoned mischief raise the lid,

And lift it good and high.

Leave grave old Wisdom in the lurch,

Set Folly on a lofty perch,

Nor fear the awesome rod of birch

When dawn illumes the sky.

‘Tis the night for reveal, set apart

To reilluminate the darkened heart,

And rout the hosts of Dole.

‘Tis the night when Goblin, Elf, and Fay,

Come dancing in their best array

To prank & royster on the way,

And ease the troubled soul.

The ghosts of all things, past parade,

Emerging from the mist and shade

That hid from our gaze,

And full of song and ringing mirth,

In one glad moment of rebirth,

Again they walk the ways of the earth,

As in the ancient days.

The beacon light shines on the hill,

The will-o-wisps the forests fill

With flashes filched from noon;

And witches on their broomsticks spry

Speed here and yonder in the sky,

And lift their strident voices high

Unto the Hunter’s moon.

The air resounds with tuneful notes

From myriads of straining throats,

All hailing Folly Queen:

So join the swelling choral throng,

Forget your sorrow and your wrong,

In one glad hour of joyous song

To honor Hallowe’en.

J.K Bangs 1910

May you find light or have light given to you in this darker part of the year and hoping that you will be able to embrace the benefits winter can bring into our lives. And perhaps enjoy a little bit of Halloween chills and divination.

Talking Trees x

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01 nov 2023

I've enjoyed and been fascinated by winter traditions and celebrations for a long time. I think embracing the turning of the year is therapeutic.

About Halloween: I'm living in the Scottish Highlands and today heard several people talk about going out 'guising' with their children last night, rather than using the term 'trick or treating.' Guising is a very old word for lots of festive or dramatic folk traditions.

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