Samhain is a time to reflect on sadness, loss, and grief. But it can also be a time for remembrance, empathy and deep, deep love.
The Queen of Red Death is close at hand at Samhain tide; Saint with a dripping bloody skull, pungent with the smell of iron, salt and roses. She wraps bony fingers around our hearts and squeezes and we know exquisite pain, and through this pain we know we are alive.
In Australia Summer is more often the season for dying, with it’s crushing heat and raging bushfires. But as the sun grows distant, melancholy creeps in with bitter wind.
The wheel turns, but its measure has been made difficult and uneasy for people not long tied to this land.
European trees settle in to sleep through a snow which in most places never arrives, allowing delicate mosses and lichens to prosper on their bare limbs. No matter how homesick and nostalgic settlers became for the birdsong of England, irrevocably changing the landscape with their introduction, the gum trees remain thick with foliage and many flowers bloom late into the autumn.
While the equinoxes and solstices are astrological, mathematical events, celebration of the transplanted cross-quarters requires an acknowledgment of colonization and its ongoing traumas.
It’s not enough to debate the merits of whether to simply shift the seasonal calendar forward six months for anyone in the Southern Hemisphere, but to dwell on the circumstances that brought us to this question in the first place.
Thus Samhain is an excellent time to reflect on Indigenous survival, sovereignty, and struggles, to learn and engage with a compassionate and open heart.
It is also a time to connect with our own ancestors and beloved dead, be they of blood, culture or law. Genetics has no bearing on this definition of ancestry, nor species; I include my dearest cats in my celebrations. Knowledge, love, and art all form the fertile soil from which we grow.
The Dumb Supper
This ritual is a simple variant on the traditional ‘dumb supper’, so called because it is performed in silence. The idea is to host a simple quiet dinner party, with places set for departed loved ones. It’s best done in the home, and can be done alone or as a group.
A bell, chime or piece of crystalware
At the head of your dining table, set a place as if for a guest, but turn it into an altar by draping the chair with red, white, or black fabric. Decorate the table at this placement with skulls, sweet-smelling flowers, heavy incense, cups of spring water, harvest fruits and bowls of salt. On the plate, set a red candle to represent the Red Death. As a force of nature, she does not require offerings of food like that which will be served to the dead.
Arrange enough tealights on the table to create a warm, low-lit atmosphere.
Set the rest of the table as normal, with a place for each diner. Each living guest should position themselves so they are sitting opposite to their deceased guests, facing them.
To begin, light a white candle by your front door or window, to act as a beacon for the souls of your beloved dead to find their way to you. If you wish you can open the door and beckon them inside, pull out the chair for your guests, be as theatrical as you like. Some may wish to do this at dusk, or before they start cooking/preparing food. A home-cooked meal works best, but whatever is within your means is appropriate. If you know your guest had a favourite food, prepare that.
Find a bell or some other tool that creates a pleasant chiming sound. Lightly tapping a piece of crystalware will have the desired effect. Bonus points if it’s a family heirloom. Ring it once when it is time to begin the ritual of quiet and of not speaking, and dish up the meal to all guests. Don’t worry about wasting food; a small sample is all that’s needed for the otherworldly. The dead are light eaters.
Take your place at your place at the table and enjoy the meal. Chew slowly. Be mindful of the sensations, the taste, the texture, the warmth and the smell. There is no purer expression of what it is to be alive than to eat.
Sit with your emotions. Do you hunger for sound? Distractions? Do you weep? Does raw powerful grief bubble up inside from a deep underground wellspring? Do you feel numb? Filled with love and bittersweet nostalgic joy? Are you shying away from anything? Is there anything you avoiding?
Be attentive to the place set for your guest.
Do you feel any sensations, faint impressions, polite requests? Do you feel a shift in temperature or energy? Does your guest ask you to season their food with a little more pepper, please? Do they chide you for forgetting they hate peas? Glad for the company, good-humored, or sorrowful?
When the meal is done, ring your bell to indicate the evening and silence is over, and thank your guests and usher them back out the door when you feel the time has come to draw the ritual to a close. Spend the rest of the evening in low-energy, introspective activities and contemplations. Listen to soft music. Journal your experiences.
Later, dispose of the dead’s leftovers at a crossroads, or by fire. Take care when doing so, and be sure not to look back when returning. You don’t want any scavengers following you home. The following day, open your windows and sweep your floors.
Traditional Southern Hemisphere date:
Sunset to sunset, 30th April, to 1st May
Evening, 5th May 2018