Monday, 5 November 2007


It has been curious not doing a Samhain ritual this year. My grove has always pulled the stops out for Samhain, and I'm feeling the lack of the yearly excitement as we all dress in black and go deep into the dark, frosty woods early in November. The trees drip with moisture and the smell of smoke and leafmould hangs on the air. (We normally sing the Dead Can Dance song performed on the video above.) Amid the piles of rotting leaves, we sink into what Angela Carter described as 'nearly, but not quite, the saddest time of the year.'

And it is sad. I sometimes feel the Druidic emphasis on darkness doesn't quite ring true, at least not for me: yes, it is rich, yes, it is voluptuously inspiring, velvety, exquisite, all those other words which get tokenistically overused. Not yet at that time of winter, in late December or early January, when the cold rings like a bell and the fields are like locked rooms, Samhain has a heavy, emotional feeling. The season bears a weight of grief.

This year, I decorated my altar with red and yellow leaves, the last of the scarlet dahlias from the garden, and twisted black branches. I collected little golden apples, and have piled them up with some rabbit bones. The ikon of Brighid is swathed in black cloth (to honour the Gaelic goddess of winter, the Cailleach, whose name means 'Veiled One', and who is a kind of wintery alter ego of Brighid.) There are photos of my ancestors: I treasure one of my great, great-grandmother, Elizabeth McRae, whose is standing holding my great-grandmother as a babe in arms in a back garden of turned earth. I looked out at the earth I have just turned in my new garden and thought of her. I burned some sage from the garden, lit the candles and stood by the open back door looking up and the stars through the trees. The squealing of rockets and the bangs of fireworks made the night sound like a flock of shrieking gulls had been disturbed by mortar attacks. But in the flat, silence reigned.

I put on Lisa Gerrard's last album and let myself fade into it; the freezing night air, the candlelight, the smoke, the stars. I had a little cry. I thought of all the suffering in the world: maudlin, I know, but at least it cut through my ingrained compassion fatigue. It tenderises the heart. I recited to myself part of the liturgy that Justine and I had cobbled together from Carol Ann Duffy for our Samhain ritual:

Learn from the winter trees,
the way they kiss and throw away their leaves
and hold their stricken faces in their hands
and turn to ice;
winter flays them to the bone.
We are sinking into darkness,
we are sailing through the night.
For man and woman,
the days turn into years
and the body is a grave filling up with time.
We are drowning.
All that rescues us is love.

And then I sat in darkness and let the cold wash in. Welcome, winter.