Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Celebrating Samhain - and Hallowe'en - in Lockdown

Note: To be clear, for the purposes of this post when I write about Hallowe'en, I mean the secular, spooky, fancy dress, witches-pumpkins-spiders-bats-ghosts-and-ghoulies fun and games which occurs on 31st October. When I write about Samhain, I'm referring to the Pagan festival which occurs on the same date but which marks the Pagan New Year, a time when the veils between the worlds thin and we honour our ancestors, celebrate the dark half of the year and practise divination etc (pumpkins optional).

As life began to return to something more closely resembling 'normality' over the summer I began to think there was no need for further posts on 'How to Celebrate [Festivals] in Lockdown'. For that reason there was no such post for the Autumn Equinox/Mabon. Yet it seems I was a bit premature in my optimism. Many areas of England are now in Category 3 Lockdown, and here in Wales the whole country is currently on a 17-day 'firebreak' lockdown which will cover the weeks either side of Samhain. It's not really surprising, given the British Government's woefully inept response to the Pandemic. So here we are again, and we are likely to find ourselves back here again in the future before this is all over. So let's take a look at some things we could do to celebrate Hallowe'en and Samhain - or both - even if we're restricted by lockdown measures.

Ideas for Celebrating Hallowe'en at Home

I have seen people complaining on social media that 'Hallowe'en is cancelled this year!'. I imagine they mean that children can't go trick or treating as they normally would, but Hallowe'en is about far more than trick or treating, even if that is the current cliché. You may not be able to go door-to-door trick or treating with the kids this year, but don't worry - there is still plenty of Hallowe'en fun to be had. Here are some ideas of Hallowe'en activities you can enjoy together, if you are in a lockdown area:

  • Throw a Hallowe'en party for the family. Decorate the house with spooky things - you can keep the kids busy beforehand drawing and cutting out spiders, bats, ghosts, etc to hang up. Prepare some spooky food - cut sandwiches into ghost or skull shapes and decorate them, turn a pot of hummus into 'frog spawn' by adding a few drops of green food colouring, use icing to decorate chocolate cake, cookies or brownies with piped white 'spiderweb' icing - or make traditional fare like pumpkin soup and apple pie. Dim the lights, light a few candles and tell each other spooky stories. Or if that's too scary put on a DVD of a classic kids Hallowe'en movie like Hocus Pocus.
  • One year I kept my friend's kids busy all day making a life-sized witch figure (a bit like a Bonfire Night Guy). We used a couple of old pairs of tights stuffed with newspaper for her arms, legs and head. A pillow-case stuffed with newspaper formed her body. Then we dressed her up in a fine witchy costume cobbled together from my black clothes and a pair of my boots. We made a mask for her face and a witch's hat out of black card. Then we sat her on the toilet in the downstairs cloakroom and had great fun listening to the shrieks of the unsuspecting adult members of the household as they returned from work and walked in on 'Winnie' unawares! 
  • The whole family could have a fancy dress competition. Make sure you have enough prizes for everyone. You may need to invent a few categories like 'Best Witch', 'Best Monster', 'Cleverest Idea', 'Creepiest Mask' etc to ensure everyone wins something, but if you do it will ensure no squabbles erupt! If you can't be with extended family and friends, you could check in with them via Zoom or Skype and admire each others costumes to extend the fun.
  • Have a ghost story writing competition and read them to each other by firelight. Smaller children could draw or paint pictures of pumpkins or black cats (or dinosaurs if they prefer!). Finish the evening with all the lights on and big comforting mugs of cocoa to settle everyone down before bedtime!
  • Try some traditional Hallowe'en party games like apple bobbing.
  • Make a special Hallowe'en playlist (suggestions to get you started: 'Thriller' by Michael Jackson, 'The Monster Mash' by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett and the Crypt Kickers, the theme song from The Addams Family, 'The Time Warp' from the Rocky Horror Show, 'Ghostbusters' by Ray Parker Jr) and have a Hallowe'en disco for the whole family. You could have themed dances too - 'Dance to this one like a zombie!' 'How would a witch/werewolf/mummy dance?'
  • Carve pumpkins together (obviously younger children will need close supervision and probably a lot of help!). To get the most out of your pumpkin, don't forget to read this!

Ideas for celebrating Samhain in the countryside or at the beach/park
  • The weather is less likely to be kind at this time of year, but if you can get out for a walk, it's a great opportunity to get in touch with nature at a time of year when there is much change to observe. What bird or animal species are in your area? Some species are going into hibernation, or growing a winter pelt or plumage. Some, such as deer, are in their breeding season. Plants are going to seed or dying back. Now is a good time to familiarise yourself with how trees look without their leaves. Many have distinctive shapes that make identification possible even when you only have bare branches to go by.
  • Gather fallen leaves, twigs, nuts, seedpods, stones, flowers etc to make into a mandala as an offering to the Spirits of the Land - there's a great article about making and working with mandalas in nature here. Or take some home to decorate your altar and honour the trees as they prepare for their winter slumber.
  • At the beach, write messages to your ancestors in the sand at the shoreline, and let the water carry them away as the incoming waves slowly dissolve the words.
  • If you would like to forage some wild foods for a seasonal feast at this time of year, look out for apples, sloes and bullaces (wild plums), sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, or beechnuts.
Ideas for celebrating Samhain in your garden
  • Create a shrine to your Ancestors in a corner of the garden (a spot in the west, direction of the setting sun and the Celtic otherworld would be most appropriate). This could be as simple as a cairn (pile of stones) with each stone representing a different Ancestor, or as elaborate as you care to make it. As the sun sets, use it as a focus point for a ritual to honour your Ancestors and Beloved Dead. Create sacred space in your preferred way, then light a tealight for each person you wish to honour and remember, saying "[their name], be welcome this night!" aloud as you do so. Spend as much time as you need with them, telling them what you want them to know and listening for any answers or messages. When you are finished, pour a libation to them. Then thank and bid farewell to each of them in turn, extinguishing their tealight as you do so. Devoke/open your sacred space.
  • The second Full Moon of the month - making it a Blue Moon - falls on Samhain this year. This would be a great time to practise your scrying! Within sacred space, take a dark coloured bowl and half fill it with water. Under the light of the full moon, gaze into the bowl allowing your gaze to become soft. Breathe slowly and deeply, keeping your gaze soft and your mind receptive. After a little while you may see images in the water, or they may seem to form in your mind's eye. Don't try to control or force the images, just let them come. When you are ready, set down the bowl and write down what you have seen in your journal, in as much detail as possible. Devoke/open your sacred space.
  • If you are able to have a bonfire in your garden, use it to celebrate the Pagan New Year. Gather fallen leaves and write on them with a marker pen the things that you wish to shed and leave behind in the old year. Feed them one at a time into the flames, to be transformed. Have a small dish of sunflower or pumpkin seeds ready. Eat a seed for each of the things you wish for in the coming year and state your intention to make them a reality (e.g. "I will enrol on the astrology course I want to do", "I will create a productive vegetable patch to help feed my family"). Say 'So Shall It Be' to seal your intention. Now celebrate - raise a glass of celebratory mead or mulled wine, toast marshmallows round the fire, sing songs.
  • Keep an eye out for shooting stars if the night sky is clear, as the Southern Taurids Meteor Shower will be peaking towards the end of the month. Don't forget to make a wish if you see one!
Ideas for celebrating Samhain in your home
  • Create an altar to honour your Ancestors and Beloved Dead. Place photos, mementos, family heirlooms etc on it and use it as a focus for communing with them at Samhain.
  • Prepare a feast of the food most loved by your Ancestors and Beloved Dead, and sit down to share it with them. It may be a strange mixture of dishes (for example, my own Feast for the Ancestors typically includes custard tarts for my Granddad, Stilton cheese for my Grandpa, ice cream for my Nanna, grapes for my Gan (Gran), a cup of tea for my Cousin Enid and friend Ivy, and a saucer of tinned tuna for the cats who are no longer with us). Yet strangely, it brings back so many happy memories that it is delicious. While you eat, tell their stories (even if you are alone) and relive the sweet times you shared together. Any uneaten food at the end of the evening can be left overnight for the spirits and then placed outside as an offering to the local wildlife. 
  • There are online Samhain rituals on 29th October here, or 30th October here, or you can join the famous annual Spiral Dance in San Francisco which is happening online on 31st October this year here
  • Samhain is a wonderful time for divination. Use your preferred method, or try something different - tarot, runes, scrying, dowsing, tasseomancy, the I-Ching.  If you read the tarot, there is an excellent Samhain tarot spread here. If you have friends who also enjoy divination, you could swap readings for each other via the phone or online.

A magical and blessed Samhain to you all.  

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Paying It Forward: Tale of a Pigeon

I was locking the door when it happened. Leaving work, turning the key in the lock when I heard a flutter behind me. I thought something had fallen from my bag and turned to see what I had dropped. To my surprise a small pigeon stood there looking up at me, head cocked, eyes bright. 

I finished locking the door and stepped gently back, not wanting to frighten the bird who I assumed had not seen me standing in the alcove when she'd flown down. Un-phased by my movement towards her she watched as I pulled the wrought iron gates closed and secured the padlocks. I was expecting her to fly off at any moment, but still she calmly watched me, seemingly completely unafraid. There are always pigeons here in the Square, but normally they keep a safe distance from the humans with whom they share the town centre. I began to wonder if she was perhaps a lost and exhausted racing pigeon, or maybe injured in some way. Carefully I knelt down and slowly extended a hand. She didn't flinch, just watched me calmly, expectantly.

Gently, I stroked the soft grey feathers of her back. She accepted the gesture and didn't attempt to escape. Now I was sure something was wrong, and I wondered what I could do. The daylight was fading and I didn't want to leave her like this, vulnerable and alone. I reasoned that if she was a racing pigeon perhaps she was hungry and expecting that a human would feed her. I don't usually have food with me, in fact I normally do my grocery shopping after work. But, that day as luck would have it, I just happened to have some left over cake in a box in my bag. I have a favourite tea shop where I usually buy myself a takeaway coffee and sometimes some lunch or a piece of cake on the days when I'm working in town. The owners and staff have become good friends and have helped me out on numerous occasions - such as the time the padlocks on the gate seized up so that I couldn't get into work, and they came to the rescue with a tin of WD40 (for the locks) and a much needed cup of coffee (for me). That very afternoon, they just happened to have gifted me with a complementary coffee - and a slice of cake. It was lemon drizzle cake - my favourite! - but I had exercised will-power (an unusual occurrence) and only eaten half the slice, planning to eat the rest for dessert that evening. 

I broke off a small corner of the cake and put it on the ground in front of her to see what she would do. She gobbled it up quickly and looked up for more. I broke off more, and then more pieces which she consumed eagerly. I mourned the loss of my cake but reasoned that her need was greater than mine. Eventually she had the whole thing, and I waited while she ate her fill. I still didn't know if she was injured, and I know how cruel some people can be to pigeons - or any vulnerable creature - so I didn't want to leave her alone until I knew she was OK.

When she was finally sated I slowly reached out a hand again. I couldn't see a ring on her legs, so I assumed she wasn't a racing pigeon after all. Her reluctance to fly away when I approached her therefore suggested she was probably injured. If she would still let me touch her, I decided, I would pick her up and take her home and keep her safe overnight before getting her checked over by a vet the next day. She still seemed unafraid, but this time she neatly side-stepped every attempt to actually touch her. Now I was in a bind. I was still loathe to leave her alone and defenceless, but if I couldn't pick her up I wouldn't be able to move her to a place of safety. 

For about five minutes we stood there side by side, strange companions on the emptying streets. I was wondering what on earth I was going to do. The light was fading fast and the streetlights began to come on. I was already late, but how could I leave an injured bird? And then, without warning, she suddenly took off in graceful flight, clearly not injured at all. She circled once round my head as if in farewell and was gone, off into the sky. I watched her disappear behind the rooftops, hugely relieved that she was OK. She must have been extremely hungry to beg me for food and let me touch her the way she had, but the cake had given her the energy she needed to keep her safe for now.

It was a strange encounter. It was strange that on that day, I happened to have the wherewithal to help when I met a creature in need. It was strange that she fell out of the sky at my feet at that very moment, when a few minutes later I would have been away down the street on my way home. Something about the encounter seemed magical and meaningful. I still remember the softness of her feathers and the trust in her eyes. I feel blessed by circumstance and serendipity. 

On the next working day, as I arrived back in the Square a crow flew down. Watching me closely but keeping a wary distance, he made eye contact and cawed loudly several times, then made a kind of nod of his head before flying off. Call me crazy, but I felt like I was being thanked on behalf of the town birds. 

Thanks to a kind and unexpected gift, I was able to help a hungry bird and felt blessed by the opportunity to do so. It's a paradox, but it's true: in giving, we receive. May we all have cake in our bag to offer when it's needed! Pay it forward people, pay it forward.