Samhain marks the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. The days are cold, the nights are long, and in premodern agricultural communities, there is not much to do in the dark evenings before bed besides telling stories. Stories about ancestors, about what happened in this place in years past, ghost stories to explain weird rock formations or spooky sounds. Our ancestors would listen to stories in darkness just as we sit in a darkened cinema to watch movies. Darkness dampens the senses to our surroundings, opening up our imaginations. We remember the dead, the landscape of our childhood. We are in between our reality and another one, a reality in which anything – good or bad – is possible.
But it’s not just the darkness that brings us to this liminal condition, as evidenced by (an anglicized version of) Ewan MacColl’s “Winter Song”:
“The heather will fade and the bracken will die
Streams will run cold and clear
And the small birds will be going
And it’s then you will be knowing
That the terror time is here”
MacColl sings for the traveling people of of Great Britain, gypsies or tinkers, kicked out of every place they stop or rest. But even for the settled who are still on the margins because of poverty, winter is still the terror time. In my own community people struggle to feed their children and to heat their homes. And the animals, from whom we are not so far removed, they experience the terror time as well. A scattering of turkey feathers or a clean deer’s skull: these are the tokens of a long winter, deep snows, and scarce food.
No wonder that, at the beginning of this season, our ancestors felt the borders between life and death – and thus between the living and the dead – thin and weaken, maybe even give way. Perhaps the stories were a way to raise the dead, for a time. Perhaps they were a comfort.
Whether this time of year means for you a preparation for winter, a remembrance of the dead, costumes and candy, or bonfires and singing (or all of the above), snuggle close to your loved ones, and may your dark times be filled with light!