The Celts knew every celebration has its risks.
The Druids taught them this, and the Druids are correct. Samhain is a festival of the harvest; the end of summer; the preparation for the winter to come. Samhain is a juncture.
As they all know, junctures lead to sundry places. There is both the leaving and the coming. A time of disquiet. A time of danger for those unprepared.
It holds the magic and the power of midnight. Midnight is a powerful time because it is the juncture of two days. Midnight of Samhain thus holds double the power. It can not be avoided. It must be met with all the power mortal man can muster. It must not be met alone.
On the Eve of Samhain, the border between Life and the OtherWorld is breached. A door swings invitingly open, but it is not inviting those who live. It is inviting those who have died. The Dead who still miss their lives. The long Dead who still are curious.The distant Dead who get a whiff of fresh air, and have their memories stirred.
So the Dead approach.
The Dead approach. The living must prepare to meet them, just as they prepare for the vicissitudes of winter. The same threatened cold holds sway over both. The living assemble the treats and threats that will assuage the longings of the Dead.
Because the living have a healthy fear of death, they equally wish to avoid the Dead. The Dead can prove to be envious, and attempt to relieve the living of their lives. Lanterns from the earth are hollowed out of turnips. Their light will guide the dead to safer places (safer for the living). Candles will shine through carved faces. Some faces are friendly and welcoming. Some are ugly and fierce, to give aggressive Dead a pause.
There will also be treats to entice the Dead – apples and pastries and savouries and some roasted game fresh from the bonfires. There will be ale and other spirits to keep the Spirits at bay. The living will wear costumes and masks to disguise themselves from those Dead who might wish their company to be more permanent.
They will remove the masks if the Spirits are friendly.
They will dance and sing and raise a right ruckus to entertain the Dead.
The boneyard is on the outskirts of town. Revellers approach with noise and caution. A bonfire is set. The moon hangs from the trees. The gated fence stands closed and latched. The living pause and watch. And listen.
Is it the wind, or do the hinges scrape the stone?
Some day she will not wake – she prays for this every night as she lays waiting for sleep.
To-night is not bad, there will be no need to use a pill. In fact, she is very good about the pills. Dr. Morgan has told her – almost encouraged her, she feels – to use a pill a night, and not fight for sleep as she sometimes does. But she can not bring herself to believe that that is right – she is certain Ned would never have agreed to it.
Ned was never one to take the easy way out. Not, she would hasten to add, that he was some sort of doomsayer, or a fanatic of any sort. But he did believe it was up to each person to solve their own problems. Where he may have expected too much was believing that all problems had a solution, He would keep at something with a relentless persistence.
She would sometimes stand near him as he was trying to replace some tiny piece of a machine, or climb yet again on the shed roof with some tar, and she would say, “Leave it be, Ned. Let it alone.” But he would just pause, settle back on his heels and perhaps light a cigarette, and say that he may as well be putting in the time on this as on anything else.
And back he would go at it. As far as she knew, he never gave up on anything until it was done. He was not the type to gloat, or even show much sense of satisfaction, and she had been married to him for years before she recognised his small mannerisms that meant he was pleased.
She turns over, being careful not to lay an arm on his side of the bed. Or let a foot stray over the line she has refused to cross for eight years. Ever since she reached out one morning and touched cold flesh.
No, she will not need a pill tonight. Her work has tired her enough to bring on sleep. It is, of course, the memories weaving through her mind that she would really like to stop with the pills.
Those memories she can barely stand, and without which she could not live.
“I don’t mean to stare – I apologize. I’m not in the habit of doing this, but you remind me of someone. That has to sound like a line – the look on your face. But I’m not after ….
“Have you ever been in the train station at Place Ville Marie in Montreal? The escalators that come up by the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I had a lot of travel to get to work when I lived in Montreal, and made train and bus connection.
“No, thanks. I don’t want another.
“One morning – a Thursday – as I was going up the escalator, I saw a girl coming down from the street. She had short red hair – that’s the main reason I’ve been staring – and a green skirt with a white blouse. Coming down that escalator, with that wide space between us. She was looking at me the way I was looking at her – interest and excitement and whatever potential that leads to. We stared into each others eyes as we came level, and craned to look back as we passed.
“I guess I’ll have another of the same, after all.
“That was stupid enough. I should have jumped that barrier, or at least gone down after her. But I had a job, and was young, and things like that just don’t happen.
“Next morning, even though I was looking for her, and hoping so much, I couldn’t have been more shocked by a ghost when I saw that red hair. She had that same look – of shock.
“God, to be so unsure of what to do, and stupid to the ways of the world, and even to have that stabbing thought that it can happen again tomorrow. We stared and stared, you could almost feel electricity between us. At the top I waited as long as I dared, hoping she would come up. I had to get my bus. I just jumped it as it was pulling away.
“That was a Friday. I sweated through the weekend, full of grand plans about telling her to wait, or to come up to me, or yelling my phone number. She wasn’t there, of course – on Monday or any other day. I looked the rest of the summer, then it was back to university.
“I mean, to be given one chance like that and waste it. But two. I’ve never forgotten, even now with a wife and kids, I wonder what might have been. It can make my hands shake, seeing someone like you, and with too much drink in me.”
Christmas is a fake that has taken root like the holly and survives tenaciously. It has become a goodies grab fest, and helps keep our commercial society stable. Perhaps reason enough to exist.
The wily Christians conquered the outnumbered Celts and supplanted their winter festival with the birth of their God. The wily pagans live on in the numerous traditions the Christians stole, so perhaps it is a fair trade. And no doubt those wily pagans chuckle over their mead, noting this celebration of reverence has become a surfeit of greed.
I have been no fan of Christmas for decades, but its mixed legacy encourages me not to abandon it. My Christian background encourages my enjoyment of the music and traditions. Most commercial intrusions can be muted or turned off. I have some personal traditions I almost follow religiously.
I do not even rail against Santa Claus. I heard his sleigh bells one Christmas Eve when I was five. I saw his sleigh runner tracks in the snow a couple of years later.
I have even been mistaken for Santa a couple of times.
Once, in the line-up in a bank near Christmas, a two year old pointed at me. Unfortunately, my presence terrified him and he started to scream and cry. His parents said things like “But Santa is nice and kind.” I was wise enough not to go Ho Ho Ho.
Another time a family approached me as I walked in a park. A boy, who looked to be six or seven, stopped in his tracks then ran back to his parents. “Santa Claus!” He pointed. Happily he did not cry. They walked past me in silence.
Also, for decades, I lived close to a residence where one of the very first recitations of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas happened. The author of that stirring piece, Clement Moore, who wrote it in 1822, sent a copy to his godfather, the Rev Johnathan O’Dell, of Fredericton New Brunswick. However, the poem was not published until 1837.
This year, I have been brushed by Christmas but twice.
I entered a restaurant to meet a friend for lunch. Before any query was out of my mouth, I was ushered to the correct table. I found out the maître d‘ ‘ had been told to be on the outlook for Santa Claus.
And, just this morning, I was told by a revered friend and writer that she was going to write a Christmas Eve column about how silly Christmas really is.
Silly is a kind word.
This is an abridged version of a story from “The Elephant Talks To God”.
“It’s your Son’s birthday and I want to congratulate him.”
wiped them away.