On why we should reclaim our indigenous practices to help us with our grief, and how we can do it.
This year has been… difficult.
We've experienced a once in a lifetime, global pandemic that we have barely begun to live through, and yet we have faced countless losses.
Losses of so many things: our normal way of life, our daily connections and activities, our jobs, our savings, even our hope for the future. And then there are the loss of life. Every nation on Earth has suffered deaths that were unexpected, that were sudden, that were divorced from human contact and warmth.
It is too early to say just how big the impact of covid will be on our collective lives, but one thing is for sure: we all have lost something important.
With that in mind, a couple of things have converged for me. Firstly, conversations and ideas still present from a report I co-authored with the wonderful Alex Evans and Casper ter Kuile called This Too Shall Pass. Secondly, some major personal life events that include pregnancies, stillbirths, deaths and loss. Thirdly, a temporary move back to Scotland and a powerful desire to bridge family histories together in a single place have resulted in me reflecting deeply on ancestors, rituals and ends.
We have the end of summer, the end of temporary respite from covid, the end of light. We have the decay of nature, the start of a new season, the transition to winter and everything that we know is uncertain and unclear. It all feels some days that we are without guidance and support to rest on. Little scaffolding to rest our tired bodies on. I've written previously about the need to reclaim indigenous practices to help us with our various forms of grief, but didn't - couldn't - feel like I had the permission to do anything about it. So I even surprised myself when I remembered that we have everything we need, we just masked it with things we don't need. The answer may not surprise many people, and may feel over the top for others, however, I felt it important to draw attention to something that could provide some solace and to find a rare moment to come together, through time, to be with each other.
With the clocks changing and the nights and cold drawing in, there surely must be some way to guard against the darkness and warm us through the winter. Enter Samhain.
Ancient cultures aligned their monuments to the major solar events, the Winter Solstice, the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. In Celtic culture, the solar year was further divided to mark the half way points between the major solar events giving the cross quarter days of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced in Scots Gaelic as ‘sah-win’) marks the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter).
According to Celtic tradition, during Samhain the division between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. The family's ancestors were honoured and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm. Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into a communal fire, household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire. Food was prepared for the living and the dead, food for the ancestors who were in no position to eat it, was ritually shared with the less well off.
Christianity incorporated the honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd. The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits survived as Halloween customs. The Irish and Scots emigrated to America in great numbers during the 19th century especially around the time of famine in Ireland during the 1840's. They carried their Halloween traditions to America, where today it is one of the major holidays of the year.The perceptible, and apparent, decline in the strength of the sun at this time of year was a source of anxiety for early man and the lighting of the Winter Fires here symbolised man's attempt to assist the sun on its journey across the skies. Fire is the earthly counterpart of the sun and is a powerful and appropriate symbol to express man's helplessness in the face of the overwhelming sense of the decay of nature as the winter sets in. The idea that Samhain is a juncture between the two halves of the year saw it acquiring the unique status of being suspended in time - it did not belong to the old year not the new.
For me, this Samhain I will be marking the time by:
Lighting a beacon
Typically constructed on a hillside, bonfires are an important part of the Samhain festival. Fires are a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic—they mimic the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter.
If, like me this year, you have the space, you could create a bonfire in your garden, or even in your fireplace. Wherever is safe, practical and legal, the purpose of the bonfire is to set an intention that a fire is bringing light to your community. Creating and making fire is about as ancient a human practice as exists (plus it keeps you warm!)
Honouring ancestors is a very special thing to do at this time and can be done in many simple ways. In my generation at least, I don't think this is done very much, so it does feel a bit odd to be so blatant. But I think we suffer for it.
Think about all those from your life, both family and friends that you've lost. Offer them your hospitality, welcome their memory into your home. At your dinner on the 31st October, cook and eat their and your favourite dishes, talk about them - remember them, bring them closer.
Remembering through light
A more discreet way to honour your loved ones who have died could be to light a candle for them at the dinner table. This allows them to have a physical, but ethereal presence, at your table.
For everyone that was taken early this year, there are as many that have had their death eclipsed, unacknowledged in the same way. I feel like we use funerals and memorials as single points for death and loss and we expect that to be enough. This year has surely told us - through our anxiety, our melancholy, our pain - that is not nearly enough.
This year it feels important - essential - for me to do this with my family. It feels important to do it with purpose, with meaning.
I hope you find something like this to do with yours. Maybe you already do, and you can tell me about all about it, I'd love to know more.