Monday, October 19, 2009


The year fades into rain and mist and early darkness as Samhain approaches in the Pacific Northwest. There's a sombre beauty about it that leaves me restless and, paradoxically, wanting to curl up by a fire with a good book. My body responds to the weather changes with more aches and less energy, yet I do enjoy some aspects of the season.

This year has been particularly hot and dry throughout the summer and the return of the rain has been welcome, bringing more green with it even as the trees turn and the leaves fall. Soup shows up more often on my stove, warming me for the longer nights.

And my friends and I are preparing for our upcoming Samhain vigil. Every year we get together and create an altar for our ancestors and beloved dead, bringing photos and mementos of those who have gone before us, bringing platters of food and cups of drink for them, offering food and drink to the spirits and deities into the fire as well. And we sit through the night reading traditional tales.

The stories get sillier as the hour grows later. Catalogues of names and repeated phrases take on a call-and-response element as they occur again and again. "You do not rule me! Clouds of blood will come to you!" becomes a wonderfully funny element in the story of Da Derga's Hostel when Chris reads it. Burnishing swords from a tale in the Mabinogi is transformed into a risque double-entendre fit for a drag queen, complete with lascivious gestures. "Oh, burnish it like you burnish your own!"

Some groups hold a silent dinner, but this isn't our tradition. Samhain is the night when the season of storytelling begins -- the Otherworlds enter our own on this night, and we make our visits into them as well. It is fitting that we dedicate the night to song and story, to feasting, to carving tiny lanterns of turnips and setting them on the altar to blaze with tealights inside.

It is the time of the night-watch; those within the ring of light from the fire are safe as the Otherworlds break through. We can touch that reality without being pulled in permanently, against our will. To stay up the whole night is a sacrifice for most of us. We'll have been up all day, going about our usual business, but the night we give to showing our dedication to our spiritual pursuits and to our small shared community.

Our vigil is not an ordeal -- it can be a lot of fun -- but it is a sacrifice. Certainly about four in the morning, most of us wish we could be home in bed. To commit to an all-night ritual is unusual for most people in our society, but the people in our group do find value in it. We continue, holding together before the fire as we face the changing of the year, seeking the blessing of our deities and our ancestors, expressing our desire as generations have before us to be here again, at this same time next year, in good health and prosperity.

It's a good feeling.