Quick on the heels of the falling leaves comes the great Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") on October 31.
Samhain and Beltaine (May 1) are the most revered celebrations of the Celtic pagan year, coming as they do at the prodigious hinge points of the year. Partly agricultural, partly pastoral, the Celts counted their winter and new year beginning on November 1, and the beginning of summer on May 1.
Samhain is the season of death revels, the period of misrule from dusk on October 31 to the Winter Solstice, when light again pierces the dark business of the hag of winter, Cailleach.
Samhain is known widely today as "Halloween," a term derived from the movement by Pope Gregory III of the feast of "All Hallows" from May 13 to November 1, to coincide with the Celtic festival of Samhain. Over time the feast became "All Hallows Eve," "All Hallows E'en," and finally today's "Halloween."
"Oidche Shamhna" was the "night of Samhain," and the boundaries of the civil and cosmic worlds dissolved into the twilight. Bonfires illuminated hilltops and fairy folk swept through forest and glen as the sidhe mounds yawned open and freed upon the world their preternatural inhabitants. Men and women masqueraded as each other to deceive the spirits of the Otherworld who roamed the crossroads.
A candle burned in each window and supper by the hearthside welcomed the flitting shades of relatives passed away. By honouring and welcoming these hungry ghosts, 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 the foul breath of bad luck heavily upon them -- the original "trick or treat."
Divinations are particularly easy at this time of year for those with enough courage not to fear the answers they might receive. Carved gourds with a bit of candle proved useful lanterns in navigating this ghostly night. The great tide of humanity fleeing the Irish Famine found the North American pumpkin a happy alternative to their small carved turnips and the "jack-o-lantern" was born, home to the shifty villian Jack, whose soul was sought by neither heaven nor hell.
Although nowadays most relegate Samhain to the domain of sugar-seeking children, the festival is as purposeful to us as to our distant ancestors.
By leaving a bit of food and drink on Samhain near the pictures of loved ones now deceased, by evoking their names and welcoming them, or by leaving a candle or light in your window, you can walk the eternal circle of life into death into life -- the same as your loved ones have done who await you.
Samhain provides the rightful season for chaos and disintegration of both the physical world around us and the unconscious world which dwells within us. By embracing the death of the season and the psychic winter which is upon us, we assure our humanity and the light which will return again in spring.
When you hear the high rattling shriek of the Cailleach echoing in the bare trees at night, fear not, all is well, Happy New Year.