November Eve embodies a Province of Time which pulls in its wake the death of the year, disintegration into winter and the unyielding promise of life reborn.
As pastoralists, the Celts divided their year in half, winter beginning on November eve at Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") and summer beginning on May eve at Beltaine. During the term of Samhain, the year was not quite ended and the New Year not quite in place. This was a time-less season where the crack in the screen between the worlds gaped to allow the intrusion of shadowy psychic forces. Souls who died during Samhain face neither Judgment nor Purgatory.
Samhain marks the territory of the hag Cailleach, who presides over a season of feasting and sexual adventure as the world is swamped by tides from beyond the earthly veil. All life trembles as the screeching wail of Chaos tears across the temporal landscape. The festivities of Samhain originally encompassed the entire month of November, a season unto itself of death revels.
The prominent features of Samhain were honouring the dead, soothsaying and storytelling. On Samhain, food and drink was left for the shades of dead ancestors and the dwelling tidied for their visit. A candle burned in each window and supper by the hearthside welcomed the flitting shades of relatives passed on. By welcoming the hungry ghost at the Feile na Marbh or feast of the dead, a family might see better luck in the coming year. Those inattentive to their spectral ancestors might find their possessions tossed into the field, their gardens disturbed and foul breath of bad luck lay heavily upon them -- the original "trick or treat."
Divinations using apples, nuts, candles and water were used to presage the future. The jumping of a nut in a fire could foretell a future mate as easily as a reflection in a bowl of water could prophecy early death.
Throughout time humankind has listened rapt by the hearth fire to tales passed from generation to generation. The incantory narrative of Celtic storytelling took place from Samhain to Beltaine -- usually never during daylight and not in the summer months from Beltaine to Samhain. On the lines of verse do legends unfold and the great heroes and monsters of Celtic lore lived again. The folk customs and stories of the Celts did not seek to assuage the bite of death -- some effort was taken to enhance the eeriness and mystery of death. By this dramatic consummation, no life was mediocre in passing, no person lessened in nobility at death.
November Eve brought devilry and confusion as boundaries between the years and the seasons dissipated in the misty night air. Men and women impersonated each other or long dead spirits by masking themselves or painting their faces black. Carts, wagons and buckets were heaved into fields or ditches as rightful possession became meaningless. Chimneys were stuffed with turf and smoke blown through keyholes as the rules of civility blended into the atmosphere. Carved turnips with candles bobbed down country lanes creating a ghostly cavalcade enough to frighten the life from any unwitting traveler. Fairy folk rode on high and ghastly specters waited patiently on field stiles for mortals foolish enough to venture into the gloaming.
Folk customs derive from a deeper source, a deeper need to renew the divine cycle year after year. At Lough Gur, County Limerick, two horned stones in the enchanting stone circle "Lios" mark the Samhain sunset directly opposite from the circle entrance which marks the Beltaine sunrise. The circle physically replicates the wheel of time, burning from one great fire festival to the next -- a mandala, a promise of the unswerving potential and descent of life.
The alchemical participation of the community and the individual in the rites of Samhain and the other great festivals insures that the rift between divine essence and human experience is healed and the spirit of the world is once again whole and undivided. By taking part in the ritual the individual gains not only a perceived measure of control over the external forces which buffet the tribe, but protection from the consuming collective pressure of the tribe itself.
The elimination of time, space and personal boundaries foreshadowed by Samhain allows the return of disintegration and the descent of humanity into the psychic and literal winter. As the winter must be accepted, so spring is promised and destiny and vitality will soon again enliven the soul and nature. In accepting the tides of the season and the years, humanity thus joins in the timeless reverie of earth and cosmos.