The Return of the Dark Days: Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve
I find it fortunate that my actions often send me back to revisit my previous writings. In the case at hand, I was beginning to wish my friends a Happy Samhain/Halloween and start of solar winter. When one asked about Samhain (pronounced SOW-in —where Sow rhymes with now), I looked to this website for what I had written on the topic to answer her. But I found out, I had not really addressed the topic online, even if I thought I had in my mind.
I have been long interested in the four cross-quarter days of the year, starting with my fondness for Groundhog Day. Back in 2001, I wrote a November Almanac essay Entering the Dark Days in which I noted the coming dark and dreary days ahead. In part, it was based on the start of solar winter, the period with the least potential sunshine, and in part on the climate of Victoria, British Columbia. During this time, frequent rain and heavy cloud accentuate the solar darkness of the season along the northeast Pacific coast.
It was after these two early articles, that I looked closer into the solar calendar and wrote the essay The Wheel of the Year. In that piece, I looked at the annual cycle somewhat differently than most. I incorporated the astronomical view of the solstices and equinoxes with the old ideas of the cross-quarter days: those four days falling approximately 45 days from a solstice/equinox, and dividing the solstice-to-equinox and equinox-to-solstice periods in half.
Therefore, if we define an annual calendar wheel with four spokes pointing to the two equinoxes and two solstices, adding the cross-quarter days would give us eight equally space (more or less) spokes. We can logically define these cross-quarter days as the start/end days for four solar seasons, and have the solstices and equinoxes as the midpoints of these seasons as was observed in Britain for centuries. (For more on this, see the original article.)
The last cross-quarter day in our current Gregorian calendar is the one separating the Northern Hemisphere autumn and winter solar seasons. And as I define in the Wheel article, the solar winter season is the quarter with the least available sunshine in this Hemisphere, excluding weather effects.
The old religions of Europe considered the cross-quarter days, the solstices, and the equinoxes as special holy or celebration days. And a number of cultures and traditions following a solar calendar begin their year at differing points on the solar wheel. For some, Spring Equinox begins the year. In others, it is Yule or the Winter Solstice that marks the start. For a few others, Samhain/All Hallow's Eve marks the transition.
The Return of the Dark Days
Before the advent of clocks and our dependency on calendars, the old cultures recognized the sun’s role in defining time. With the last cross-quarter day before the Winter Solstice comes the entry into solar winterthe darkest quarter yearfor residents of Northern Hemisphere regions outside the tropics and subtropics where days are also shorter, but not by a great amount. For example, in North America at Key West, Florida, the midwinter (solstice) day length is about ten and a half hours at its minimum; whereas north of 76 degrees, night lasts the full quarter.
This cross-quarter day has gone by many names. The Saxons called it Winter Eve; the Celts, Samhain; and many rural European societies observed it as the Westwind Sabbat, and the Festival of the Last Harvest, and often the start of a new year. It has been celebrated as the Day of the Dead, and All Saints/Souls Day in Christian traditions. Today, the greatest observances of this day are held in North America without much thought to its origins, and it trails only Christmas for personal spending on its celebrations. Yes, I am talking about Halloween.
Before the Catholic Church quashed Celtic beliefs, the Celts believed it to be a transitional time for the opening of a place between the worlds where deep insights could pass more easily to those who were open to them. In addition to inspiration, through the portals could also pass beings of wisdom, fun, and play, according to Dr Kathleen Jenks, of the Mything Links website. The Church, however, saw these beings as a potential danger to their dogma and declared them evil. As a result, we see Halloween filled with frightening creatures such as witches, ghosts and goblins and other things that go bump in the night. And when one considers the howl and scream of winds during this part of the seasonal weather cycle, it often is hard not to believe one of those frightening creatures has entered our world and lurks just outside the door.
In the old traditions of the Celtic and Finnish peoples, for example, the transition date also signified the end of the annual harvest, perhaps why pumpkins and other hard squash are so prominent in our Halloween celebrations. By this time, all food for the coming winter would have been harvested, processed and stored. It was also the time to bring the flocks in from summer pasture and a time for the culling of those animals for meat.
As it came at the end of the Celtic annual year, it became a time for renewing contract and landleases. The time was also appropriate to remember those who had passed from this life during the year, perhaps based on the belief of a schism between this world and “the other side”. Thus All Saints Day on 1 November, though some sources suggest the date was chosen by Pope Gregory IV to celebrate the dedication by Pope Gregory III of a chapel in the Basilica of St Peter.
Since Samhain celebrations began at sunset on 31 October, the day prior to All Saints Day became All Hallows Eve which later was contracted to Halloween.
In old Ireland, the assemblies of the five Irish provinces would meet at Tara Hill, the seat of the Irish king at this time, and the assembly brought fairs and markets, political discussions, and the ritual mourning of summer’s end to the site.
Meteorologically, the time more or less begins the domination of winter weather conditions on the weather patterns in the non-tropical North. The first frigid polar air masses have fledged and begun their journeys out of arctic lands. And so begins winter, despite the medias desire these days to make the Winter Solstice the official beginning of winter as if it were subject to decree from Arthur of Camelot (as sung in the song Camelot in the musical of the same name). The active storm centres in the north Pacific and Atlantic now begin storm production in earnest.
The Dark Days of the Year have returned.
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