As I’ve pointed out previously, we follow the ancient Celtic view of when seasons begin and end. By this reckoning, known as the “natural calendar,” today is the first day of winter. In fact, it’s Samhain, the old Celtic New Year.
Samhain, pronounced somewhat like “SOW-wen,” is also the name the Celts gave to the month we call November. Samhain used to be a very important, if not the most important holiday of the year, being the harvest festival, new years day, and the time of year when the veil between this world and the next thinned to the point that it might be pierced and crossed. Starting one’s year at the beginning of winter seems a bit bleak to me—starting the year in spring seems more symbolic—but there’s a lot of sense in having a really big feast at the beginning of the year’s leanest months.
I find it fascinating that Samhain, seen in northern Europe as a time when contact with the dead is easier, corresponds with pre-Spanish contact beliefs in Mexico that are nearly identical. How could such a belief be so widespread? Whatever the reason, I like the idea of communing with loved ones who have passed on, of remembering and perhaps communicating with our ancestors.
Unfortunately, Christianity has muddied these holidays, condemning the observance as “evil.” Now the terms Samhain and Halloween are tainted with presumption of satanic practices that bear no resemblance to the original observances. Paradoxically, this is how “All Saints Day” came about, to co-opt the pre-Christian observance when the threat of eternal damnation couldn’t quell it. If you’re looking for seasonal reading, I highly recommend the story “Refuge of Insulted Saints” from Robertson Davies’s High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories. It tells what happened to all those saints the Pope demoted to legendary status to make room for more.
We don’t mark Samhain particularly in our family, except as the time to pack up the Halloween decorations, butcher the Jack-o-lanterns, and, this year, set the clocks back to standard time. However, there is one small ritual that I anticipate with delight: bringing out the winter wine glasses.
This set of glasses has a winter scene etched around each bowl: snow covered trees with falling snowflakes. They were a bride and groom’s gift to their guests at a fondly-remembered winter wedding.
Since then, we’ve brought them out on the first day of winter, and used them until February ushers in spring. Beside their beauty and sentimental value, they’re very practical. It’s so easy to fill the glass exactly to one’s satisfaction! “Fill me to the tree line,” “just to the snow line, please,” or “up to the sky!” are simple directions to follow.
It’s far too early to be bringing out the Christmas music, but this Samhain evening, as we sit down to our table and fill the winter wine glasses, I know the opening line of John Denver’s Aspenglow will come to mind:
“See the sunlight through the pines/taste the warm of winter wine . . .”
As we toast the new season, it’s hard to know what will come. But come what will, we’ll see it through, buoyed by the love of family and friends—those with us, and those that have gone on ahead.