Tag Archives: festival

Nature at Samhain

Some twenty years ago I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between modern Druid festivals and the wheel of the year as it turns where I live. The solstices and equinoxes make total sense because of their relationship with the length of the day and night and all the impact that has on the rest of nature.

Imbolc is traditionally associated with sheep lactating and with snowdrops. Lammas (which is at the same time as Lugnasadh) is associated with the first of the grain harvests. While lambs don’t reliably appear in the fields this early, we have some obvious markers for these two festivals. Gathering May blossom is traditionally associated with Beltain, and it’s also the time of year when bluebells come out, and when it’s warm enough to be barefoot outside (or to have sex outside, but barefoot is probably more inclusive!). 

I spent a long time considering Samhain. The pumpkin harvest may seem obvious, but pumpkins are from the Americas and not part of UK tradition. If you’re growing them, it may well make sense to take them as a key seasonal marker. Twenty years ago is struck me that the leaves are usually down from the trees by Samhain.

Climate change is impacting on the wheel of the year. How we relate festivals to seasons may need serious consideration in light of this. Do we stay with the ancestral dates? Or do we adapt based on what those dates mean to us? I suspect the answers will be individual. For many people around the world, those ‘Celtic’ dates have never related much to a lived experience of the local seasons anyway.

It is Halloween. Most of the trees in my area still have all their leaves. Many are barely beginning to turn yellow, and there’s a lot of greenery present. There is no sense of the dying year, not yet. It’s still warm enough to be outside without a coat during the day. Grazing animals are still out in the fields. If your focus for Halloween is the idea of bringing animals in and choosing which ones will live, then we aren’t at that point in the year yet, either.

Festival at the Edge

Folk festivals have been something of a feature through my life, from childhood visits to the Holford Arms, (tiny, windswept festival in the Cotswolds) to Bromyard in my teens, Alcester through my twenties, and assorted one-off visits to many others. I’ve not been in a field full of folkies in too many years. Festival at the Edge is in Shropshire, and is primarily a storytelling festival, although there is a music thread, dancing, beer tents, and folk people.

Tom and I were invited to go along by the fabulous Genevieve Tudor (of BBC Radio Shropshire’s Folk Show fame – and you can listen online). We did a three hour stint in the children’s area, getting a large number of brilliant, enthusiastic young people to write dreadful poetry and draw hideous monsters. It was a very intense session, and excellent.

I caught a fair bit of music – Biscuit Badger and the Biscuit Heads, Phil Hare, Na-Mara, Lady Maisery, and Bill Caddick. Bill made me cry. He pretty much always does. Back when I used to run a folk club I once put him on as a guest with a reference to how reliably he reduces me to tears, and then had to explain that no, this isn’t because the songs are terrible… Every time I feel lost and don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing, someone needs to sit me down and make me listen to Cloud Factory, John of Dreams, and Unicorns. I will probably sob pathetically for a bit and then get my arse into gear.

I didn’t get to much storytelling, but I did go and see Amy Douglas, someone I also booked more years ago than I feel inclined to admit. She’s a lovely performer with a warm and intimate style.

I spent quite a lot of the festival catching up with people – old friends from the Midlands folk and Pagan scenes, and the Matlock the Hare creators. And one epic moment in the history of this blog – if you read the comments (and you should, the standard here is always high and the posters splendid, and friendly) I had the surprise and delight of finally getting to meet Argenta in person!

If you know me online and happen to be at an event I’m doing, please do come and say hi, (and expect to have to tell me who you are, my facial recognition skills are abysmal.)

A swan wind

We were up long before dawn, walking out into the darkness. A half-moon sat high in the sky, occasionally shrouded by clouds. For once, the roads were largely empty and the early day peaceful and silent as we set off up the hill. Already the darkness in the east had softened to tones of blue. As we climbed the hill, blue faded slowly into a pale yellow suggestive of coming light.

There were street lamps, we did not walk in darkness, but the surrounding landscape was largely hidden as we started. By the halfway point on the hill, the Severn plain had grown visible, a landscape of greys with the distant hills little more than rumour.

We came off the road, onto the grass, still climbing. In nearby trees, an owl hooted, calling the end to the hunting night just as larks in the grasses began to fly and sing out to the day. We paused to reflect that this would have given Shakespeare a bit of a headache. Larks are so often thought of as summer birds, but they still fly the hill top through the winter, singing their rippling melodies. From nearby a buzzard called and we heard a raven.

There came a point when we suddenly rose high enough to enter the wind. It was an icy blast, coming from the east. At this time of year, the east wind brings us snow, and also migrating swans from Russia. They’ve been slow to arrive at Slimbridge, the wet, southerly winds we’ve been having make their long journey difficult indeed. I thought of them, and wondered if they would be flying in.

By the time we reached the hilltop, light had permeated the vale, bringing greens to the fields, although the hills remained grey and mysterious. We walked to the barrow, but it was too cold in the wind to stay still for long. Turning to face the dawn, we walked back, watching the skyline pink and glow with the coming day.

Coming down the hill, the sound of wings stopped us in our tracks. Not all birds are identifiable in flight, but one kind of wing whistles as it moves, making a distinctive sound that carries far. There, passing over the hill, were two swans, flying from the east towards Slimbridge. From that distance, we could not see their beaks (orange for the resident mute, yellow for the migrating bewicks and whoopers). Given the time of day, the wind direction and the size, I think they were bewicks, with a few miles left to go of their epic journey down from the arctic tundra. It was a remarkable moment, and while I have seen the migratory swans many times before, I have never previously seen them flying in.

It is not quite what we had planned for today, but this morning has been a blessing. We saw a kestrel as we were coming down off the hill. Seagulls were flying up from the Severn to spend the day in the hills, as is their habit. Then, the peal of church bells, no doubt for an early morning service. We walked down to a town no longer lit by streetlights, but waking into action. Cars on the road. Cheery greetings from strangers. The smell of unspeakable things being done to turkeys. It’s not my festival, but it can bring out warmth and conviviality in people, and that’s no bad thing.

Now, to work, and cook, and see what the rest of the day brings.

All Hallows Day

Halloween comes to us from the Christian calendar, and is an abbreviated name for All Hallows Eve. It also used to be called ‘all souls night’ while the all Hallows bit refers to November the first being All Saints Day. As a consequence it always amuses me to find misinformed, anxious Christians talking about the dangers of Halloween, that well known festival of all things evil and occult. Sorry folks, it was your festival all along. Yes, Samhain falls at the same time, but once you start poking the Catholic calendars of old, it’s pretty hard to find a date that isn’t potential cause for celebration. Every saint has their day and people can celebrate the day of the saint they were named after, if they are so inclined.

Once upon a time, the Christian church understood that death was a powerful force and that people need to set aside time and contemplate it, and make peace with it. The Mexican day of the dead festivities are a fine case in point. I don’t know if the rise of visible Paganism has gone alongside the Christian fear associated with this, their festival. The rise in commercial exploitation hasn’t helped.

For the fearful, it’s a slippery slope. You start by letting kids wear pointy hats and carve pumpkins and before you know it, they’ll be worshipping Satan and dabbling in dangerous occult practices. Satan, it is often forgotten, is a figure from Christian mythology. He may parallel certain goat footed Pagan Gods but that’s a whole other story.

When did the Church start trying to be so clean and safe? All Saints day, today, would have honoured the saints. The majority of people ‘blessed’ with the title got it by dying in strange, grotesque, horrible ways. The kind of deaths that modern torture porn films could really get their teeth into. Its odd, really, that this material has never been mined for entertainment. The mentality that would draw a big crowd to watch someone being hung, drawn and quartered is alive and well and sitting in a cinema near you, waiting for the strange catharsis of gore. Mediaeval Christianity was full of the dark and grotesque. Tombs depicting decomposing corpses, horrible faces in the church roof – all the material of fear and reality, right there. The depictions of Hell used to be pretty wild, too, all naked flesh and horrible torment. But again, we have the cinema for that, we don’t go to church expecting to see people having their breasts torn off.

Religions evolve. All Hallows Day has all but vanished, and Hallow ‘een as take over, and been kicked out of the Christian calendar to become a strange, secular rite involving costumes and chocolate. Next time someone tells you that Paganism is somehow invalidated by its youth, or by not being the same as ancient Paganism, hold this thought. The Christianity that decries Halloween today would not make the slightest sense to the people who celebrated as a Christian festival it not so many generations ago.