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November 1 — An Irish Ritual

by Florrie Munat

I went into labor on Halloween night 1971. While we awaited the birth of our first child, Chuck and I joked that the baby might be born a tiny hobgoblin or witch. But Teddy was born at 12:26 p.m. on November 1 — All Saints’ Day in the Christian calendar. Many years later when Ted participated in a college Irish Studies program, he discovered another ancient ritual that was celebrated on November 1: the Irish New Year, known as Samhain (SOW-en).

On November 1, 2003, Chuck and Ted and I decided to celebrate Samhain and Ted’s birthday at our home. Four months earlier Chuck had suffered a severe stroke, and only a few weeks before, he had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. The twin tentacles of those illnesses had thrown us all into a state of confusion and sorrow. We hoped the celebration would help us begin a journey, if not of healing, then of understanding and acceptance. Given Chuck’s Irish roots, Samhain seemed an appropriate ritual to observe.

Ted’s girlfriend, our oldest son Charles (from Chuck’s first marriage) and his wife joined us. It was perfect Samhain weather – raw wind, gray sky, and the promise of rain. We brought Chuck home from the nursing facility where he had resided since July.

In accordance with preparations for Samhain, during the past few days some of us had given or thrown away unnecessary or broken possessions, paid debts, cleaned house, and (in a modern twist to an ancient ritual) trashed unneeded computer files and backed up others. Samhain is a time of letting go and clearing out. Then on November 1, our family observed some of the principal activities of Samhain, as the Irish have done for centuries.

Create a harvest feast.

In the kitchen, Chuck sits in his wheelchair and watches Ted create a thick tomato-based broth flavored with basil and freshly-squeezed orange juice. The windows fog up as the soup simmers on the stove. I put a round loaf of Aran donn (Irish bread made of flour, oatmeal, and buttermilk) into the oven. Ted makes “fairy cake” batter and pours it into muffin tins, while I chop apples and celery and walnuts for an autumn salad.

Put your garden to bed for the winter; plant spring bulbs.

While the food is cooking, some of us go out to the front flower beds to dig holes for bulbs. We battle stubborn juniper roots for rights to the soil. The earth flies apart in chunks, yielding to the thrusts of our shovels. Our hands are chilled by the wind. Chuck watches for a few minutes, then asks to be wheeled back inside so he can sit and sleep by the fire next to Charles. We cover the bulbs with dirt and rake Japanese maple leaves over the beds.

Light new candles.

Last night we burned our old candles, blew them out, and threw them away. Tonight there are new gold-colored candles on our table. We light them and eat our Samhain meal together, acknowledging our debt to the earth for our food. We speak of those who have gone before us – my mother, my sister, my grandmother, and Chuck’s mother — all of whom died around this time. We say to each other, “I love you.”

Let go of the past and say hello to a new chapter of your life.

Today is the beginning of the Irish New Year. The past is gone, not to be revisited. The future, no matter how daunting it seems, lies ahead and must be approached with a child’s innocent bewilderment, asking: What do I need to learn in this new chapter of my life? What do I have to offer? What do I fear? Why do I fear it? How can I go forward with strength and courage? How can I love myself and others more completely?

I am overwhelmed by these questions, but quietly confident that if I am patient and live from moment to moment, answers will come.

The bulbs we have planted today will lie dormant throughout winter. Next spring their growth will push aside the black earth, and yellow, purple, orange, and white blossoms will emerge into the warm light.

Chuck is tired and ready to return to his small room at the facility, which is a few miles from our home. We are on solo journeys now, he and I. We interact daily, but nothing is the same.

Chuck used to teach Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to high school students in Chicago. He would challenge them to cite three consecutive words from the play, and then he would identify the act and scene from which the words came, the character who spoke them, and to whom. A few weeks ago when we were filling out our absentee ballots, he began to weep because he could not remember his last name.

We have much to learn from this time.

Samhain is about potential. With courage and reflection we can change. Samhain suggests that our lives are not so much about progressing forward, but about passing through cycles.

It is 5:00 p.m., and the sun has already set on this bleak November 1, the first day in the Irish New Year. It is Samhain. Today we are instructed, “Go inward, into your proper darkness, and be a witness to your own growth.”

With gratitude to Sean Williams

©Florence H. Munat