The Death of the Year

On October 31st, many Wiccans, practitioners of the religion of Modern Wicca, will celebrate their end of year festival, Samhain (generally pronounced Sä-wAn, sO-hwen, or sau-An.) Samhain represents the change from summer to winter, and in Wicca marks the change from one year to another. It is celebrated both as a community rite and as a familial one, with the evening's activities focused on the newly dead and the family's own ancestors as well as the hope for a good harvest and gentle New Year.

When the deathwatch has sounded, we close the circle, and move on with our lives, the dead always near us, fondly in our hearts...

With the events of September 11th, Samhain 2001 has become an especially poignant holiday, as the traditional calls for justice and peace for the newly dead take on new meaning for many people. Samhain is not, for Wiccans, a time of merriment and mayhem, but a solemn reminder of what has been lost in the year that has past, and a pledge to find hope in the future.

Sunset of the Year

In Wicca, as in many religions based in whole or in part on the indigenous practices of Indo-European peoples, the day begins the moment the sun is no longer visible on the horizon. For this reason, Samhain represents what some Wiccans call "The sunset of the year," the entrance of the year into the dark half, which reaches its maximum at the Winter solstice.

Wicca embraces such liminal days, the transitions between seasons and changes in traditional crops, and some of its highest holy days are determined by the position of the earth in relationship to the sun. Wiccans see times of solar change as moments of tangible contact with divinity, or, as some say, when the veil between the worlds is thinned. Samhain, as the transitional day between solar years, is the highest of the liminal holy days, and for most Wiccans, the most sacred time of the year.

Samhain in the MacMorgan House

As Wiccans with Celtic Ancestors, Samhain in the MacMorgan house is something of a mish-mosh of Celtic Reconstructionist, Family Tradition and Wiccan Ritual. We are not Celtic Reconstructionists, and as an American-born family, feel little claim to the Celtic Reconstructionist path. In honoring our ancestors, however, some Celtic "flavor" has seeped into our rituals.
The night begins with a feast, usually ancestral foods, I make mutton barley soup the way my great-grandparents might've, and my partner subjects us to her attempt at Scottish and Sicilian Cuisine. We lay out favorite foods of our kith and kin on an altar out in a secluded part of our garden; Lemon Shortbread cookies for a grandparent, a shot of Jack Daniels for an friend who died on his motorcycle, Guinness for my son's namesake, steak, chocolate, oranges, for dozens of people in a life that's known the tragedies of too many.

We also set out food for those we did not know, whose comfort we wish in the afterlife--Tempest Smith, a Wiccan girl who committed suicide after the taunting of her Christian schoolmates grew too much to bear, an unknown baby who the television news says died alone in the middle of a dark night, the thousands killed in the World Trade Center attacks, the woman who taught me Wicca, several years gone, whose face lingers before my eyes when I close them during any ritual. We do not discriminate, all who need comfort are welcomed here. We bring this food out to the garden, and stand around the altar, holding hands in the cold autumn night.

"Friends, Family, Hungry ghosts," I call out to the darkness, "Take these simple gifts and be at peace. We keep you in our thoughts and set this table in an act of remembrance of you." We believe the dead know when you think on them kindly, and we speak the names around the altar of those we wish peace for. Then, chilled, we rush into the warm house and sit down to the feast with friends or just as a family. During the feast, we offer dinner to anyone who comes to the door, and leave all the doors of the house open so that the dead, if they wish it, may pass inside and sit at the empty seats at our table. When the meal is over, we close the doors, and travel downstairs to a room we have set aside for sacred worship. As Wiccans, we worship within a circle, before the Lord and Lady. As our faith teaches, we welcome the ancestors, and the divine into communion with us, and within that circle, I cry the deathwatch, a tradition of keening for those who have passed and received no grievers, for those whose deaths were unrecognized, or whose deaths warrant more notice than they have gotten. It is a cry of pain, but also for vengeance, for justice and with sympathy for all whose tears have touched the soil in grief for one who has passed.

The sound shakes the walls, and our hearts, and reminds us of the hope for the future--that we will live lives so blessed that we are remembered fondly when we have passed, and that our spirits be respected and honored by our kin in accordance with our wishes. When the deathwatch has sounded, we close the circle, and move on with our lives, the dead always near us, fondly in our hearts, and the time for grief past. The next day, we will wake and get back on with business, the business of raising a family, going to jobs, but also the business of that deathwatch-honor, and in some cases justice, for those who have left us.

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