A friend asked if I intended having a Sam Hayne party this year. That threw me for a moment until I realised she was trying to say ‘Samhain’.
Ah, yes! It’s almost the end of October, that time of the year when historians, Irish people with a genuine interest in their culture, “born again Celts”, revivalists and revisionists, recently returned German tourists and so on, clog the internet with articles on the famous pre-Christian festival.
There are plenty of excellent articles already out there on Samhain and there’s probably not much more I’d add with respect to Irish mythology. As a general rule of thumb however, I’ve always felt you shouldn’t write about Samhain unless you genuinely celebrate it, either through a party, a single shot of the hard stuff, or a simple acknowledgement of what it meant for our ancestors and consider what – in reality – it means for us today.
That’s one of the problems with ancient festivals, I suppose. To be meaningful or authentic, Samhain really has to be relevant, otherwise we end up going through the motions (like many Irish people attending mass in the past – not because they believed the particular doctrine but because that was what had always been done and everyone else did it).
Generally speaking, the point where a working ritual becomes a commemorative tradition is also the point where it starts to become meaningless. Here in New Zealand, for example, celebrating Samhain has always felt a bit weird. Samhain was a festival that marked the commencement of the winter. Its associated rituals therefore, were developed around the necessary preparations for that. The reality of my geographical location in Wellington conversely, means we’re actually heading into summer (and should probably – or more appropriately – be celebrating Bealtaine). In addition, because the ritualistic parts of the festival were very much based around agricultural practicalities (the crop season, the feeding of livestock etc.) the fact that I live in a modern city means those rituals are no longer particularly appropriate to the way I live.
In modern society, if we want to be honest and follow an authentic cultural process, we really need to find a more practical and more appropriate means of marking that celebration or, alternatively changing it entirely. That’s not the case with everyone of course. For anyone in the northern hemisphere associated with the agricultural sector, Samhain is still as relevant today as it ever was.
For those of use overseas, or living away from the land, we may have to rethink how we proceed in the future with such celebrations. If not, we’ll essentially be celebrating a festival day due to an incorrect identity alignment or for purely commercial reasons.
But, hey, that would never happen, would it?
Saint Patrick’s Day anyone?
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