To our Western European Pagan forebearers, Samhain marked the beginning of the Dead Time. At harvest’s end when the sunlight was in short supply, it was a natural time of thanksgiving.
On a practical level, it was appropriate to cull what must be stored for sustenance during winter, what must be seed for the next planting season. Spiritually, it was the time of honoring the spirit world—deities, Nature spirits, and the recently deceased.
Closing the year, along with celebrations of successful harvest, so were the dead honored. A place-setting was laid at the celebratory table for those who had died that year, and food was left for them.
I would imagine that ages ago, when resources were scarce, the gratitude expressed for the dead at year’s end was heartfelt and sincere, as was the enjoyment of the celebratory feast.
These were the last decadent celebrations of the year, heralding the bleak winter ahead.
Samhain is commonly called The Witches’ New Year, though it was taught to me as marking only the year’s end. The new year didn’t begin until several weeks later, at Winter Solstice. Just as harvest closed the year in autumn, the return of sunlight at Solstice brought hope for the new year, as well as affirmed survival of the harsh cold. The time between these holy observations was the Dead Time, a space outside mundane time and perception, the mystical birth of the notion that the veil between worlds thins.
The darkest time of the year, the Dead Time brought the depths of winter, from which there was no assurance of spring. Not only was physical survival of the dark winter a challenge, it also tested sanity and stamina. Worry that there wouldn’t be enough to get to spring pervaded life, thus, spiritual observation.
We don’t approach Samhain or The Dead Time the same our ancestors. We don’t generally live in fear that the light won’t return (although it’s something to think about), that we won’t be fed, or that we won’t have the opportunity to manifest our desires. We do however, acknowledge Seasonal Affective Disorder, a cyclic form of depression that many experience in winter, while other socially and economically beleaguered spirits cope with the holiday blues. In light of these modern trends, The Dead Time is still a naturally provocative passage.
As time, itself, seems to suspend between Samhain and Winter Solstice, giving us natural pause to hibernate and reflect on what we’re finished with and can leave behind, what we most want to carry forward and grow, we can still experience death and rebirth as our elders did.
Hold these observations in mind as you approach the next waning of the sun and the procession to the Dead Time. Enjoy the solitude of shadow, and know the light will soon warm!