The Many Faces of All Hallows

The candles are lit, an extra place is laid at the table, and a carved grotesque sits on the windowsill to spook would-be mischief makers. Somewhere behind the cloud cover, it is full moon. As night falls, Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-ane’) is here!

This year, I’ve had little time to prepare for the Samhain or All-Hallows-Eve or Halloween celebrations, as the day has been spent on the road, driving back from our mini-honeymoon in North Somerset. Leaving the gorgeous villages and landscapes of Exmoor behind and travelling back home, to prepare to head back to the day job and ‘normal life’ on Monday morning, fills me with mixed emotions.

Exmoor ancient woodland

In many ways, mixed emotions is a theme of this time of year; the cusp of the agricultural new year and the change of seasons. Thankfulness for the light and the harvest is laced with a fear of the dark and ‘beyond’. Halloween or Samhain derives its origins from the last of three harvest festivals celebrated through autumn. It marks the end of the harvest season, when hopefully all produce is stored and safely gathered. At ‘Lammas’ in August the grain harvest began, by ‘Mabon’ or the Autumn Equinox in September it was time to gather fruit; now as the weather turns increasingly inclement and days are darkening, it would be the turn of fattened livestock to make their contribution to the winter larder.

Death is an uneasy subject for many, one to be faced eventually, but not looked at directly. Many of the traditions of halloween stem from the need to confront the uncomfortable reality of death, but also celebrate the cycle of life and renewal. As a turning point of the year, it is naturally a time of reflection, and a commonly held belief is that the veil between ‘worlds’ is at its thinest at these times, allowing for passage of spirits and communication with those who have passed through. Honouring the ancestors and thanking them for the lessons they passed down, or looking for advice on how to cope with the worry and uncertainty of the darker months to come however that manifested itself, provided a focus for this reflective time. There was fear connected with the dark and unknown however, and traditions of donning masks and costumes and carving grotesque faces, and lighting fires and candles to scare or hide from ‘evil spirits’, remain with us today. Even trick or treating plays on this; is the knock on the door a passing loved one or a mischief maker intent on no good?

One halloween tradition I maintain is to take a moment to myself, whatever our arrangements for the evening, simply to stand on my back doorstep in the dark garden and listen. To watch the stars if they are showing. To listen to the singing of my nervous system and the unidentified sounds of the night, and the vastness of the sky, and marvel at how much we cannot understand about the world we are part of and its complex systems and its magic. I’m always a little more grateful to come back indoors, to a blanket on the sofa and warm chatter and candle light, (heartfelt thanks too for the extra spoonful of stew I pile onto already full plates), but also I don’t rush to draw the curtains at the window to shut out the dark. Just sometimes, we all need the connection and magic of a little bit of spook in our lives.

After four hours sat in the car, and a busy few weeks even before we went away, I was feeling stiff, cramped and disconnected. Once the bags were brought in, a cup of tea drunk, and a deep breath exhaled in that way only arriving home can do, I was desperate to head out for a short stroll before we lost the daylight. Getting out to the field edges and familiar paths always feels as much a home-coming as walking through the front door of the cottage.

Autumn hues gather round a traditional Exmoor cottage

Through the month of October autumn has gained momentum. The bold glow of late summer, still so full of energy, has been replaced and by a thinner but still beautiful light. There is a different pallet of colours; field maple is golden, bramble stems are ochre and nettles folding back on themselves to musty brown. The fields ring with the evening alarm barks of countless bronzed pheasants.

Tomorrow I’ll have to unpack, put away clothes and sort the washing. Head to the supermarket to restock the empty fridge. Change gear; move forward, a new chapter starting as the year tilts. Tonight though, I’m in no rush. Just as with the end of harvest, this is a time to cull that which cannot be sustained, and gather close that which will nourish us through the next season.

Happy Halloween, blessed be.
Sophie x x

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