Embracing Samhain, Embracing Life

Embracing Samhain, Embracing Life October 28, 2016

This is a magnificent time of the year

Daylight is receding, as is the warmth it provided throughout the summer. My garden has been put to bed beneath a golden blanket of straw, and the forest is casually dropping its brilliant leaves into the passing wind. In a culture that emphasizes life and puts forth a great deal of effort to separate our daily lives from the reality of death, I suddenly find myself surrounded both in nature and in popular culture by symbols of that final rite of passage we must all eventually face. For me, this is the great conundrum of Samhain: how does the celebration of the end of life translate into such an enjoyable season? And why do we celebrate death at all?

At Halloween we allow our young children to tentatively explore the symbols and concepts of death in a protected environment, dressed in fun costumes and stuffed full of sugary treats. Then as teens and adults, we return to this theme on our own to sample as much of it as we can bear. Horror movies play out gruesome endings in a way most people (myself not included) can tolerate because we understand that the odds of being hacked to death by a madman are remote. We pay good money to walk through haunted houses and corn fields in the cold of the night in the hopes that complete strangers will jump out and frighten us silly. As a culture, we revel in the trappings of death and suffering throughout this season.

Catacombs of Paris – Photo taken by Allison Ehrman on her honeymoon. A fun time was had by all.
Catacombs of Paris – Photo taken by Allison Ehrman on her honeymoon. A fun time was had by all.

But why do we do this? Let’s look back at the traditions associated with Samhain. Ancient Celts believed that this was the time of the year when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. In their universe, the dead literally walked among them on cold autumn nights. They lit candles and fires and set out sacrifices of food both to protect their homes from spirits who may have harbored ill intent as well as to help guide their departed loved ones along their journeys, in essence saying “We acknowledge you and we appease you, but we are not yet you. Please pass peacefully along your way and leave us to embrace life until we have no choice but to join you in death.” These, along with other Samhain practices, are the same traditions many UU pagans still embrace, and they have also evolved into our modern day Halloween.

It’s not difficult to imagine why humans’ thoughts turn to death at this time of the year. We are surrounded by it in nature. Fields are becoming fallow, vegetation is turning brown, trees are shedding their leaves, farm animals are being butchered, and wild animals are leaving for warmer regions or receding into their burrows. We as humans have evolved to associate the growing cold and darkness with a fear of running out of fuel and food during the lean winter months, while history joins in to remind us that this is the time of year when others have actually frozen or starved. We also understand that this is the season when disease takes advantage of masses huddled indoors and snakes its way through the population with deadly ease. Almost everyone is terrified of death, and we are now encircled by it.

Adoring Samhain

So why then do so many of us adore this time of the year? Like many others, autumn is my favorite season and Samhain is my favorite Sabbath. How can we reconcile the overwhelming acknowledgement of death with an increased love of life?

I’m convinced that part of the reason is that there is still lingering within our collective consciousness the ancient sense of relief provided by a bountiful harvest and having survived intact through another year of physical hazards presented by raising livestock and hunting. We may not actually reap the grain or slaughter the animals that line our grocery store’s shelves throughout the winter, but most of us are able to rest well in the knowledge that these provisions are there and are waiting to keep us well fed throughout the cold and barren months ahead. For those of us who garden and buy from local farms and then spend hot summer hours over boiling pots of pickles, jams, and produce to the background hum of a dehydrator, a full freezer and well-stocked pantry make this celebration even more tangible.

Many of us also look forward to spending more time indoors near friends and family members, particularly as Thanksgiving, Yule, and New Year’s approach in my corner of the world, sometimes celebrating holidays from other religions as well. The concept of gathering around the hearth, surrounded by love and overflowing tables is again part of that ongoing collective consciousness which encourages us to look forward to and to continue recreating our own interpretations of these beloved traditions.

Last year at this time I developed a Wheel of the Year Plan for myself and so I began my annual practice with a focus on death simply because it happened to be Samhain. My fear was that I would become anxious or depressed as I immersed myself in such a seemingly morbid practice. As it turns out, my experience was actually the exact opposite of that. The clutter of everyday worries and frustrations began to fade and fall away more and more as I read essays on death and listened to the stories of others who had faced or were actively facing their final days. It was genuinely one of the least stressful and most joyful seasons of my year.

When we take the time or are forced to consider death, we are forced to consider our priorities. In the face of death, a petty argument with a coworker seems as inconsequential as it is. Upon the realization that life is short and will come to an end, it becomes clear that time well spent with our loved ones is far superior to time spent watching television or wading into the comments section of a political article on the Internet. When we stop and consider our own mortality, it is easy to realize that we should be working to improve our health and living life to the fullest while we still have it. It also becomes more evident to our conscious minds that nobody bypasses the final gateway out of this life. We have this in common with every other human we will ever encounter, which makes our differences seem minuscule in comparison. This wisdom makes it easier to forgive, easier to love.

So let’s celebrate death. Let’s celebrate life. Let’s celebrate the junction where they meet and let’s walk among the dead who have begun the journey before us. A blessed Samhain to you and yours.

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