"Become aware what is in you. Announce it, pronounce it, produce it and give birth to it." - Meister Eckhart

30 October 2014

A Hallowe'en Story; or what Samhain means to me

This weekend, millions of pumpkins and turnips will be transformed into devilish-grinning lanterns lighting the way for millions of children to haunt the streets in their ghoulish costumes seeking sweets, bobbing or “dooking” for apples, and playing pranks of one sort or another.

It is, of course, Hallowe’en.

And while it may not be apparent to many children (or even their parents) “Hallowe’en” is actually a contraction for “All Hallows Eve”, a day in the Christian calendar when traditionally we remember the departed. But the story is older and deeper than that.

Hallowe’en is a Christian re-imagining (or re-appropriation) of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-when), a word from the Old Irish meaning “the end of summer”. Thus, it came to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of a new year, winter, the time of darkness. As in many cultures that mark these important transition times, fires were often lit and various rituals carried out to cleanse and purify and prepare for the season of death and dying.

It was also a time when it was thought that the veil between this world and the next became thin and more transparent. In Celtic mythology, it was a time when faeries and other spirits could more easily enter into the mortal world. Even the souls of the dead were thought to be able to return to visit their homes and families. Thus, it was important to appease these spirits with offerings of food and drink. Families would set a place at their table for their departed ones. Masks or disguises were worn to ward off the mischievous fairy folk. Folk went from door to door reciting song or verse in exchange for food or perhaps a chunk of coal for their fire. Often, they carried hollowed out turnips or “neeps” with a candle placed inside to use as lanterns. This tradition led to the story of the “Jack-o-lantern”.

The Story of Jack O’Lantern
Jack, the story goes, was a rather rakish, thieving fellow who frequently took what wasn’t his (he had a fondness for turnips) and committed all sorts of crimes against his fellow man. Such was Jack’s craftiness that he even outwits the Devil, causing the old fellow to ban Jack from Hell. Later, Jack dies while stealing turnips. He suddenly finds himself before St Peter at the pearly gates. However, St Peter makes it clear that Jack is not welcome in Heaven and sends him on his way to the underworld. Jack arrives and knocks on the iron door. When the Devil sees Jack, he chases him off, telling him to return to the upper world. When Jack complains that he can’t find his way in the darkness, the Devil throws him a lump of burning coal, which Jack places inside the turnip he’s still carrying — thus the origin of the “Jack of the lantern”. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how these stories and customs evolved into our present-day guising and dressing up in ghoulish costumes.

And if you think these stories are just a bit of harmless fun, I can tell you that they still have power to offend and create anxiety. A few years ago, I was invited to a Scottish primary school to tell Hallowe’en stories. When I arrived, the Head Teacher took me aside, as we were about to enter the room full of expectant children, and asked me not to tell any stories that mentioned “death” or the “Devil”!

I told a few innocent stories about pumpkins and witches before coming to my key story — the story of Samhain and the old Celtic tale of Jack O’Lantern. The children listened carefully and quietly as I unveiled this ancient festival and its customs before settling down to my story of Jack O’Lantern, a story I learned from the telling of the great Traveller storyteller Duncan Williamson.

I’m not saying I was right in telling the story against the instructions of the Head Teacher. I made an intuitive choice. I felt the story was part of our shared Celtic heritage, a link to our ancestors. I wasn’t there to glorify Devil-worship or overthrow moral authority. I was simply going to tell an ancient story which partly explained what was behind the plastic pumpkins on the shelves around them, the silhouetted witches on broomsticks tacked on their walls and the little cloth ghosts that hung from their ceiling. You may have done otherwise; I wouldn’t judge you. But I believed in the story and that it was right to tell it.

When I got to the part of the story that mentioned the Devil, the teacher glared at me. The children simply laughed at Jack’s wit and the Devil’s stupidity. When I finished the story, the children applauded; many spoke out saying how much they enjoyed it. One little girl in the front row put up her hand to get my attention. “My Grandad’s told me that story,” she grinned, “and he says at Hallowe’en that the barrier between this world and the other one is very thin . . .” Suddenly, the teacher intervened, “Quiet Heather (not her real name), I’m sure Mr Williams doesn’t want to hear that nonsense!”

Immediately, the girl shrunk under the weight of the teacher’s authority. I knelt down in front of Heather and said (loudly enough for the teacher to hear), “Actually, I’m pleased to hear that. I’m glad that your Grandfather tells you stories. I’m sure he’s a wise man.” Heather gave me a little smile while at the same time keeping an eye on her disapproving teacher. As the teacher escorted the children from the classroom, Heather and a few other children lingered behind to say how much they enjoyed the story and ask me if the story was true. I said, as I often do to such a question, “The story may not seem true on the outside but there is truth on the inside if we look for it.”

Needless to say, I was never invited back to that school. Perhaps you’ll feel I had no right to defy the Head Teacher’s request, that it was unprofessional and jeopardised the possibility of the School hiring other storytellers in the future; or you might feel, as I did, that the story was an important one to tell in the context of the Hallowe’en festival that was being celebrated. I also based my decision on my experience over many years as a counsellor and child care worker, working with children and young people in therapeutic settings. In my experience, children need to talk about death, about things that frighten them, about the mysteries of what lies beyond this world just as their ancestors did centuries ago. When adults deny these realities or refuse to discuss them openly, children become even more anxious. It seems to me that Samhain was an expression of our Celtic ancestors’ questions about death and what lay beyond this moral coil.

For me, Samhain is a time to reflect on my attitude to death and dying and particularly on my relationship with those in my life who have gone on before me. It’s a time when I remember—as do many cultures—my ancestors and dear departed friends. That’s why on this All Hallows Eve or Samhain, I have invited friends to join me around the fire to share stories and memories of our dear departed friends and relations. We will invite their spirits to be present with us, for I believe they’ll love a good story as much as anyone does. After all, no one is truly dead as long as he or she is remembered and their stories told.

Blessings for a meaningful, story-filled Samhain/Hallowe’en/All Hallows Eve.

I’d like to leave you with this poignant poem by the late Irish poet John O’Donohue.

On Passing A Graveyard

May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all who rest here.
May the lives they lived
Unfold further in spirit.
May the remembering earth
Mind every memory they brought.
May the rains from the heavens
Fall gently upon them.
May the wildflowers and grasses
Whisper their wishes into the light.
May we reverence the village of presence
In the stillness of this silent field.

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
see also www.johnodonohue.com

I welcome your comments. If you are interested in furthering your own exploration of story and storytelling, contact me to enquire how storycoaching might assist you.


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