Thursday, 27 October 2016

Links and things for Samhainn


Seeing as I didn't get around to doing one of these this time last year, I figured I'd make up for it now...

Before we get into the links, I thought maybe it would be good to clear up a few things. Samain is the Old Irish spelling; Samhain is modern Irish or Gaelic (Gàidhlig/Scottish Gaelic). In Gaelic, you might also see the spelling Samhainn or Samhuinn, the latter being the "old" way of spelling it (Gaelic orthography was overhauled and modernised in the 70s, so spellings became more consistent).

Samhain can refer to the month of November – mi na Samhna or Samhain in Irish, or an t-Samhain in modern Gaelic, for example (click on the links for audio files; note that the pronunciation differs according to dialect). You might see claims that it's incorrect to refer to the festival as "Samhain" because that's the name for the month, not the festival itself, and instead, more specific names should be used – Oíche Shamhna ("Samhain Eve" – the eve of October 31st) and Lá Samhna (the day itself, November 1st) in Irish, or Oidhche Shamhna and Là Samhna in Gaelic. This is true; these are the specific terms that refer to the specific eve/day that's celebrated today as Hallowe'en and you should probably use them if that's what you're talking about specifically. But... As we see in the myths, "Samhain" is used to refer to the festival (in a pre-Christian context), and that's an entirely valid way of referring to the festival in that sense. The reason it's used this way in the myths is probably because the festival was originally celebrated over several days – some sources say three days and nights, others suggest the festival was up to a week long, so it's not just referring to a particular day or night. In context, it's clear that the festival is being referred to, not the month in general, so it's fine to use "Samhain" as a shorthand for the festival. It is good to bear in mind who you might be speaking to and what you're specifically talking about, though. Sometimes, in the context of a conversation, you might want to use the modern terminology rather than the shorthand.

Clear as mud?

Cool.

So now we've got the terms out the way, let's look at what Samhainn is all about and what you can do to celebrate it.

As usual let's start with a video! This is Gaol Naofa's most watched video on our Youtube channel, which just goes to show how popular the festival is. Here you'll find just about everything you need to know to get started:


If you'd prefer a little light reading, then how about starting with some articles from Tairis?


You've probably heard that Samhain is "the Celtic New Year," but is it really? Where does that idea come from, exactly? Very probably it comes from the nineteenth century antiquarian John Rhys (with a little help from some friends), and I've outlined the evidence I've found so far about that in The New Year. Your interpretation may vary...

Feasting is a huge part of the celebrations, and of course it's a time for divination, games, and giving out treats to guisers. Some of the divination "games" that are played (or performed, if you prefer) involve the use of traditional dishes, including:

  • Cranachan – a Scottish dessert of whipped cream flavoured with toasted oatmeal, honey, and whisky, usually served with raspberries. At Samhainn, charms can be mixed in as a way of telling the recipients future
  • Treacle bannocks – used in a very messy game where they're covered in treacle and hung above the head so the players can try to catch their "prize" using only their teeth
  • Bairín breac – an Irish tea loaf which is traditionally baked with charms mixed into it (measurements given in cups)
  • Colcannon – buttery mashed potatoes with cabbage (and often onions); another medium for the charm game

Though if you prefer a basic sponge cake works well for the charms, too.

Protective rites are an important part of the proceedings at Samhainn and the Irish Parshell cross is traditionally made and hung over the threshold to protect the occupants of the house. If you keep livestock, you can make one for the barn or stables, too. A Scottish tradition sees a special bannock being baked and then thrown, piece by piece, over the shoulder as an offering to dangerous or evil spirits as a means of keeping them at bay.

Guising, mummers plays and strawboys are also an important part of Samhainn traditions, and also have a protective tone. You can find out more about them in Ireland here. Typically guising (kids going around in disguise collecting treats from neighbours) – which can be seen as the precursor of modern-day trick-or-treating – involves the performance of a piece of entertainment to "earn" a treat. The trick, if necessary, is traditionally done later, in secret. There are lots of traditional songs or rhymes that are associated with guising, but jokes are acceptable, too.

If you'd like your kids to get into the spirit of things and learn some traditional songs, here's one example, called Oíche Shamhna, Oíche Shamhna – sung to the tune of "Frère Jacques" (video included at the link).

Finally! Here's a link not directly relevant to Samhain celebrations per se, but it's a wonderful write-up of a trip to Tigh na Cailliche (a place very dear to my heart!), from Scott at Cailleach's Herbarium. According to tradition, the stones at the shrine (which are said to represent the Cailleach and her family) are brought out from the shrine every Bealltainn and put away inside for the winter, at Samhainn, so now's the perfect time to read all about it!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The roll call of the dead

For only the second time since I became a Gaelic Polytheist I have a family member to add to the list of ancestors I'll be honouring at Samhain. The first was my granddad, who got to meet his first great-grandchild (my son) before he died only three months later on New Years' Day, 2006.

Now I get to add my father-in-law, who died earlier this year. It was very sudden – and tragic and awful – and it's left us all in an aftermath of differing proportions. My mother-in-law lost her husband of nearly 50 years, my husband lost his father, my kids lost their Papa. To me, he was more a father than my own ever was.

This was clearly Rosie's idea

The best we can tell, he fell head-first down the stairs. He didn't try to stop his fall or cry out, so it seems likely that he lost consciousness and it was only when his head met the floor that his fall came to a very sudden stop. He lost a lot of blood and sustained a massive head injury, but the way he landed also meant that his chin was pressed into his chest and he was unable to breathe. He was without oxygen for at least 20 minutes, as far as we can tell, probably closer to 30 minutes. By the time the paramedics/EMTs arrived his heart had stopped, but they managed to revive him – somehow. He never regained consciousness, however. A small mercy, I think. After it was confirmed he was braindead, and his immediate family had managed to come to his side and say their goodbyes, life-support was switched off. He died at 11.55pm on June 15th, 2016, after only a matter of minutes.

It's been a difficult time since then, in some ways. We've all had to navigate our own grief while accommodating each others', trying to be understanding and sensitive to everyone else's needs as we reach different stages of grief ahead of, or behind, other people. The first night he was in hospital, while Mr Seren was by his side and they were still hoping that there was some hope left, I went outside and prayed (throughout the whole ordeal I stayed home with the kids; we felt it was better for them to remember him as he was, and the days were just too long for them to handle anyway). I prayed and I felt a presence at my shoulder, a brush against my hand, and then a stillness and a peace. I knew then that he was gone. He wasn't coming back from this.

Acceptance was the easy part for the adults. My father-in-law was a complicated man and he was hard to know in some ways. He was a man of many passions but life had worn him down. Towards the end he was an unhappy man – a little lost after his retirement, depressed and lacking in purpose, angry, in pain from his bad knees, and unable to play the music he so loved. He'd given up in many ways. He was struggling and didn't go out much. In that respect his death has come as a relief and a release. As tragic as it was, he was ready, and in some ways that's a comfort. At his funeral, it was standing room only. Over 150 people came to pay their respects. That was comforting, too. Flawed as he was, he touched a lot of people's lives.

None of that's offered much comfort to the kids, though. My son, in particular, is having a hard time parsing the loss of his Papa. He's found it difficult to go to his grandparent's house knowing that he won't see his Papa there, even though all of this things are still there. The ghost of his memory hangs heavy in Tom's mind, and he found the funeral a little overwhelming, not knowing what to expect, not knowing how to deal with his emotions. We talked and tried to walk the kids through everything that was going to happen, but I suppose for a child hearing it and living it are very different things. It was a humanist service and the stories that were told were not stories of the Papa the kids knew, really. The Papa who went to seminary but left, the Papa who cycled the Highlands every weekend, and who met Nana at an archaeological dig. The Papa who left the house and did stuff. The Papa who was young once. That wasn't the Papa they knew.

When I broke the news of their Papa's death to the kids – the morning after, when they were supposed to be getting ready for school – they were shocked. We'd prepared them as best we could and had told them that it was going to happen, but again, hearing it is different to living it. Aside from asking how and why, Tom's only comment was, "But I didn't really know him yet. It's not fair!" The funeral only compounded that.

The family is planning to go over to Derry at some point – where my father-in-law's mother came from – so we can spread his ashes in the place his mother was born, per his wishes. Hopefully it will help Tom come to terms with it all and find some closure, but in the meantime, with Samhainn approaching, I'm trying to think of things to do to help him (and Rosie) keep processing. He finds it hard to talk about his emotions at the best of times so it's a fine line between helping him open up and picking at an open wound.

This is the first time we've had someone to add to our ancestor altar, as a family, so I'm going to try and involve the kids in what we'll be doing – finally getting some photos printed so we can set up a small altar to our ancestors, sharing stories (including old favourites like The Time Papa Got Stuck in the Bath, Twice, And Only The First Time Was Really Accidental, followed by The Time Papa Decided To Remove A Wasp's Nest, Drunk, And Surprisingly Fell Off A Ladder), and each of us adding a stone to the cairn out in the garden. We've been working on some decorations (Rosie's crafted a clay headstone with "RIP Papa" on it), and we will have our usual feast (Rosie has requested stovies, a speciality of Papa's), and leave a space for our ancestors to join us. I'm also planning on taking the kids to the beach so we can each pick a stone to bring back and place on our cairn. Knowing Rosie, she'll probably want to decorate it first.

So as always at this time of year, the ancestors hang heavy in the air. But this year, one more face joins the crowd, and now the kids have something more tangible to frame what, exactly, "the ancestors" really means to them. One more face joins the crowd. Goodbye Papa.