Autumn is the time of year when the earth’s energies are waning, when the harvest is gathered in and winter is round the corner. For the Celts each new day started in darkness at sunset and similarly their new year begins in the period of greatest darkness before the winter solstice. For them, Samhain was the first day of winter.
It was regarded as a time for divination and for dreaming when the veil between the worlds was, like at Beltane, at its thinnest. It was also a time for the ghosts of the family to return to the home. This may have been marked by a Dumb Supper where the meal was served in complete silence with a place laid at the head of the table for the ancestors. Everyone present had to avoid looking directly at the empty seat as if they saw the dead it would bring bad luck. At the end of the meal, the food was placed outside for the pookas.
Witches would travel abroad at Samhain. It was believed that they flew on besoms or rode on ravens or tabby-cats that were turned black for the night. All of the witches of Scotland would meet on Samhain eve to celebrate, cast spells and make prophecies.
Fairies would also be out and about on Samhain eve, moving from the hillocks where they’d spent the summer to barrows where they’d spend the winter. If someone had been lost to the fairies in the previous year, this was the time to get them back by snatching them from their horse as they rode past.
The king of the fairies, Gwyn ap Nudd, lived inside Glastonbury Tor. He was Lord of the Underworld and leader of the Wild Hunt which rode out from the Tor on Samhain. It was a harbinger of death and bringer of bad luck to all who saw it. White Yeth hounds ran before the Wild Hunt as it sought souls to take back to the underworld.
In the Highlands of Scotland, each house would light a bonfire on the nearest hill. When the fire died down, the ash would be gathered in a circle and a stone put in for every member of the family. The following morning if any stones were found to be moved or damaged, the person who’d placed that stone was expected to die within the year.
At the turning of the year, as the earth embraces darkness, Samhain remains a period for reflecting, for resting and reconnecting. If you’re looking for a new dream or a project to work on, this is a good time to visualize and allow space for dreaming. So at dusk on Halloween (trick or treating permitting!) take a minute to light a candle to signify the start of the new year and allow yourself a little time for dreaming.