Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Honoring the Ancestors at Samhain

Samhain. It's a word that is often mispronounced and is associated with either fear or joy. Fear by those who don't know any better, and joy by those who do. Let me explain.

Samhain, pronounced sow-in in Irish Gaelic or sah-vin in Scots Gaelic, means, loosely, the end of summer. It is also the Irish Gaelic word for November. It is NOT pronounced sam-hane (shame on you, Supernatural!), nor is it the name of the Celtic God of Dead (shame on you evangelicals!) It marks the beginning of winter and is one of four seasonal festivals celebrated by the Celts, often associated with fire for its cleansing and protective qualities. Considered a liminal time when the boundary between the living and dead was thinner, it was not necessarily a time of fear, as some, unfortunately, believe. It was more a time of reconnection.

The ancestors were considered important in the health and wealth of a community. Currying their favor ensured success with crops and livestock. Samhain was of particular importance in this regard. Because the Celts believed those who had crossed over could step across the threshold to visit family, places were set at the table for them. In some areas the food set aside was not to be touched by the living; in other areas the food was given to the poor. Games were played for the enjoyment of the visiting ancestors, and gossip was heard for their pleasure and to catch them up on current events. Thus, the ancestors were both fed and entertained, and kept interested in the affairs of the living. It also served to remind the living to remember and honor the dead.

Hallowe'en, or All Hallows Eve, is normally a time for us modern folks to play. We dress up, and dress up our children, and take delight with all things scary. Normally, I would be doing this myself, because who doesn't enjoy cute kids in adorable costumes asking for candy? Especially the ones so young they just stare at you when you open the door - they are my favorite. But not this year. Last year I lost my father, and my long neglected Samhain practices have fallen to the wayside. This year feels especially important to celebrate properly.

My father had mostly German ancestry. The Germanic equivalent of Samhain is known as Winter Nights. This celebration also honors our dearly departed.

Because the Celts marked the beginning of each new day in darkness, that is, the night preceding, my celebration began at sundown on October 31. I made two dishes: a stew baked in a pumpkin, and stwmp naw rhyw (mash o' nine sorts). Because I am a vegan, the stew is beefless using vegan "beef". Samhain was a time when the Celts gathered in their herds for the winter, and slaughtered the excess to feed their families through the winter. Beef, then, was a common meal for the festival, so I honor that to the best of my ability by using an acceptable substitute. I served it in a pumpkin just because! The stwmp naw rhyw is a traditional dish served in many Celtic communities on this day, but I'm  not certain how ancient or modern it is. I just thought it was cool.

My Samhain meal of stew over mash:

For dessert, I served raw, washed apples. The symbolism behind apples is the Celts believed their dearly departed traveled to a place called Eamhain Abhlach (Paradise of Apples); some may be more familiar with its Welsh counterpart, Avalon. As I mentioned above, games were played for the benefit of the ancestors, and one of those games was bobbing for apples.

The Celts believed that when one died, they traveled to the west. So, another tradition still kept by many in Celtic countries today is the seomra thiar (west room).  It is more typically a shelf on a western wall in the home, where pictures and other mementos of loved ones that have passed are placed.  I have one in my own home, next to my fireplace, coincidentally on a western wall. I love doing jigsaw puzzles, and this year just so happened to pick one up by artist Nene Thomas, entitled Swan Song. The perfection of this didn't occur to me until later, after I got home. A swan song is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture before death or retirement. I felt it very important to finish this puzzle and display it on my seomra thiar by Samhain, and I succeeded. It now takes pride of place behind my collection of photos and belongings of my family that are now gone, as a tribute to them and their accomplishments and impact on my life.

Traditionally, since Samhain is a fire festival, a bonfire would be lit. I was unable to have a bonfire, and normally would have lit a fire in our fire pit, however, it was raining pretty steadily, so didn't have a fire. :(

One way today we can honor our ancestors is through genealogy research. This is another area I have long neglected. I remedied that today by organizing my genealogy material in preparation for an overdue trip to my local genealogy library. I am happy that I was able to get stories from my dad while I had the chance.

I am pleased with how my celebration turned out. It was just what I'd hoped to accomplish. I'd like to think he would have enjoyed my food, even though he liked to tease me about being vegan. Nevertheless, he did always eat any dish I prepared. I miss him every day. I love you, Dad!

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