Perhaps it’s because I have the blood of generations of Gaels coursing through me that I have always been fascinated by Halloween, or should I say, Samhain. Samhain is the ancient Celtic festival which culturally we have by in large turned into Halloween, in turn whose connection with the Christian festival of All Hallows is probably lost to many. Samhain was believed to be a time when the veil between the real world and the other world of witches, the wee people and the departed was at its thinnest. In times gone by our forebears would leave an empty chair and food on the table to satisfy any passing ancestors. Traditionally celebrated on 31stOctober -1st November it marks the end of harvesting and the start of the ‘darker half’ of the year.
I am writing this in the early morning of a day which is dark beyond dawn, wild and wet with the threat of gale and damage in the air. The atmosphere could not be more apposite for the day. What holds my fascination for this time is not the monsters and ghouls, the ‘dooking’ for apples or the endless carving of turnips or pumpkins – but that the day offers an opportunity to celebrate the harvest of the earth and to prepare and reflect for the darkening of the season.
But this year everything is different. There will be no knocks on the door, questionable poetic renditions or feigned childish shyness. Restrictions have limited traditionality, the streets will be much quieter tonight. But probably more than in any other recent year the original purpose of the day is all the more necessary – a time to reflect on the year and to carry hope into the dark days to come.
One of the things that we have probably largely lost in our modern celebrations is the sense in which Samhain and its Celtic successors was a collective and shared experience. It was a time when people recognised their binding into each other, their connection in community and belonging , their rootedness in the earth and to the soil on which they stood, all of which would be to them so important in the coming days of a hard winter. It was a time to celebrate togetherness and to re-commit to being concerned and committed to each other in the days of dark.
This past week has been a strange one. I have spoken and written enough about the Public Health Scotland report on the discharge of people from hospitals into care homes so I will not mention the substance of its contents here. What I do want to reflect on in is the reaction both in the media and within politics. I have to confess to a real sense of disappointment and dismay. One national newspaper used language and description which maligned frontline staff, debates I have heard have been heated and vexatious, argumentative and dismissive. Now I am no shrinking violet and have been as robust as the next person when I have seen injustice or behaviour which is unacceptable. But the level of blame, the point-scoring and the desire to apportion guilt has been quite shameful . The reason for my disappointment is that many seem to have too readily lost sight of the fact that behind every statistic and number, is a human person, is broken grief and heartfelt hurt.
In the spring when we experienced the first wave of the virus there was an amazing degree of political, media and societal togetherness. There was a real sense of solidarity. That all seems to have disappeared in the heat of the summer and to lie in tatters in the empty harvest fields around us. The days of ‘In It Together’, of rainbows on windows thanking staff and key workers, of clapping for carers, of a sense of mutual regard seem a distant dream away.
Solidarity is a wonderful concept. In its French original it’s definition means a “communion of interests and responsibilities, mutual responsibility,” a sense of demonstrating real interdependency.
In the first wave of the pandemic there was a real sense that we had consciously put aside personal and political ambition and put on a mutual resolve to determine through common action our regard for one another, our desire not just to protect ourselves but those around whom we lived. I remember the scenes of neighbours helping one another, of strangers becoming friends, of unity across garden fences, and a real growth of community at its best. The harvest of those actions was a real literal suppression of the virus. We need to re-discover our solidarity in this coming season.
When I speak to folks around me, whether carers or families, workers or clinicians, there is a real and palpable fear and anxiety. Unlike the days of spring, we know about this virus, we know the pain and distress, the loss and grief it can cause. There is fear in knowing what we know. Unlike the first wave in a spring that reached out into the warmth of summer, we know this second wave is coming at us in a winter which at least in Scotland can sometimes feel as if it is never-ending. So, it is all the more important that we hold each other up, that we re-discover the solidarity of the spring, as we enter into the darkening days of winter.
This day teaches and tells us that darkness is always followed by the dawn, it reminds us that in the cold hard barren earth that seeds of growth and renewal are already dormant waiting to struggle into life. This day should show us that through collective action, mutual aid and support, that we do and will meet the struggle, and come through the other end. We will not do so by creating islands of self-interest or reverting to a narcissism in politics or social discourse, we can only do so by leaning on the humanity of each other, by bringing friend and stranger close into our company. This is the solidarity which alone will beat this virus.
So it is that we have to re-discover the sense that the only way we protect those who are most vulnerable is by our own individual action. IPC, PPE, testing and vaccines are all critical tools in the fight against this virus, but most important of all are the individual actions we all have control over. What I do impacts on my neighbour. We all of us need to be responsible for each other.
And that is where the hope really is. Because we know deep within our bones, that the fear never truly overwhelms, that the warmth and light of new beginnings will spring into being, and that constraint and restriction will be replaced by renewal and reconnecting.
So it is that through careful determination, by linking our arms in the solidarity of common interest and concern, that I am optimistic that all our sacrifices, that all the separation and loss, the pain and anxiety, the death and emptiness, will bear a fruit of renewal. But only if we seek to be a community rather than a collection of individuals.
The night of Samhain helped our forebears in their beliefs to glimpse the past and the present, to be in touch with meaning beyond understanding, so our actions in the coming days will show us the future of our being together, as individuals, as families and as a nation.
I leave you with some of the elegiac words of the American poet Annie Finch whose love of Scotland in all seasons comes through so much of her work:
In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while they hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.
Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil
that hangs among us like thick smoke.
Tonight at last I feel it shake.
I feel the nights stretching away
thousands long behind the days
till they reach the darkness where
all of me is ancestor.
I move my hand and feel a touch
move with me, and when I brush
my own mind across another,
I am with my mother’s mother.
Sure as footsteps in my waiting
self, I find her, and she brings
arms that carry answers for me,
intimate, a waiting bounty.
“Carry me.” She leaves this trail
through a shudder of the veil,
and leaves, like amber where she stays,
a gift for her perpetual gaze.
@ Annie Finch