This year fall is glorious, though alarmingly warm and dry. Tonight of all nights, I wish it would snow. On Halloween, snow seems to signify the visible veil between the worlds when the ancestors come visiting. This is the night the ancient Celts called Samhain.* The harvest is done, it is the eve of the new year.
Of the few vegetables I plant anymore, here are Russian kale and chard, still robust and decorative. The chard is tender and sweet, but the kale is a little tough, probably only suitable for soup. It can hold out against the coming cold — at least a little while. The chard will go first, but rise again in spring if roots are left in the ground.
Even without dark clouds and snow, the echo of death is everywhere. The lighthearted atmosphere of the garden is becoming, not gloomy or solemn, but honest in its admission of mortality, its need to disappear and rest. Death is never so obvious as in the waning garden.
Tonight, the dead, the ancestors, ghosts and demons, spirits and fairies will let loose upon the world and roam the garden. Clumped seeds hang from my only hollyhock, so heavy they drag the ground. The seeds sliced perfectly within the flat, round pod (they remind me of tiny bunt cake pans) are another miracle of cosmic mathematics, Earth geometry.
The autumn gilt of the rabbitbrush has lost its vibrancy. Chyrsanthemums, gaillardia and rudbeckia, a stray pink rose, several huge yellow dahlias, and an odd marigold or two have been fueled by this long autumn, but look as though they’d really like a nap. Early this morning I picked a ragtag farewell bouquet for the dinner table and a raven skimmed into the garden.
To see a raven or crow on November Eve can be an omen of impending disaster. To the ancient Celts, crows and ravens — distinguishable for the wedged tail — were foretellers of doom, of death, and war and loss in battle. The Morrigan, Triple Goddess of Destruction frequently appeared as a screaming flock of “scald” crows.
In the Babylonian tale of the Flood, which predates the Biblical story of Noah, it was a raven who, on the seventh day, found dry land. The Norse god Odin was accompanied by two ravens, and two ravens guided Alexander the Great across the desert. The raven is almost universally a trickster in the Native mythology of the Pacific Northwest. To many peoples, ravens are the dead reborn.
On November Eve, the Celts opened the graves and did not leave their homes while the dead crossed the Thin, the frontier between this world and the Other. If the living met the dead, they’d perish. Or the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy people of the Goddess Danu, might pluck a mortal soul away to their land of Tir na n’Og. Bonfires were laid on the hills and all the hearths doused, though each house was bright and cozy with many lamps. In the morning, when the dead had moved on, the household re-lit their hearths from communal fires. Such dousing and relighting from a central blaze is customary in many places, an emblem of community solidarity, symbolizing the power of the living over the dead.
This is the night o’Halloween
When all the witches can be seen.
Some are black and some are green,
and some the color o’ the turkey bean.
The Christians who converted the Celts appropriated Samhain and renamed it All Hallows Eve, Halloween. I didn’t grow up with Halloween, there were no carved pumpkins, costumes, or trick-or-treat. My experiences in Latin America more closely resembled the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, when, on the first day of November, the graveyards are cleaned, the dead are remembered and celebrated with great joy.
Tonight the doorbell will ring and we’ll rush to see who’s there: a mermaid, Superman, a hobo, or Death itself as a skeleton or the Grim Reaper.