Brigid and Samhain

Brigid has, of course, no real direct links to Samhain, Imbolc being her gig. But all the same there are some things that link her to Samhain, in a loose, non-specific way.

Brigid was the one who taught us keening (see Caith Maigh Tuired 2), the proper way to mourn our dead. And Samhain is the time for remembering those who have passed on. There are traditions in Ireland kept to this day on this time of year. Laying out the extra place at the table on Halloween night (Oíche Samhna) for any passing departed family member or friend who wants to pop in. The whole month of November (also called Samhain in Irish, or Mí na Samhna as we learnt it in school) is devoted to the dead in the Catholic tradition, with All Saints’ Day being November 1st and All Souls’ Day being November 2nd. There are increased numbers of prayers for the departed throughout the month and it’s a long standing tradition in this country of visiting a graveyard to pray for the inhabitants, if that’s the correct term, during the month of November. Remembering the dead is a big deal at this time of year in this country. And as for those who pass away at this time of year, well it’s not lucky to pass away at all, but it’s generally accepted with all the extra prayers going on, it’s not a bad time of year to go – the prayers can give you a head start on the way out of purgatory, y’see.

It’s important too, to remember the graves of those who have gone before us. While many parishes hold their Cemetery Sundays in the summer, a reason to give the grave a spruce up for the occasion, November is a time when families will bring fresh flowers or ornaments to the graves as well, in remembrance. It’s not precisely that the Irish practice ancestor worship, you understand, it’s more the respect to the dead is strong in this country and particularly in November.

It’s a time too for remembering those who have gone before us. Invariably at this time of year, the story of my Nana as a ghost gets told. It was coming close to the last day in November and Nana hadn’t made it to a graveyard because of one thing and another. So late one afternoon, she hopped on her bike and cycled over. It being November and Ireland, she was well wrapped up in her good coat, which happened to be very pale in colour. And it being November and twilight at best, dark at worst, she didn’t want to go too far into the graveyard for fear of who or what she might meet. So she hopped in over the style and knelt down just inside the wall to say some prayers. As she was finishing up, she saw two neighbours coming towards her and thought, brilliant, we can cycle home together. So she lept up onto the style and called out to them. They, seeing only a pale, wavering figure appear out of nowhere at the edge of a graveyard, took great fright, and took to their heels (well pedals!) with force. Nana, not wanting to be left behind, hopped on the bike to come after them, causing them to pedal with even more intent.

It was only when she arrived home, crossly wondering what in blazes was wrong with the women, that she realised the sight she must have presented.

This story always promotes a great laugh in our family, because while Nana was formidable, she was also four foot nothing, with blonde hair, so you can imagine the image the two women saw on the wall of the graveyard, on a dark night…

There are other stories that are told as well. Have a look at An Scealaí Beag’s Patreon offering for this month for some of the darker tales of this time of year. But I’ll get back to Brigid now.

For me, Samhain marks the last quarter of the year before Imbolc. I see it as November for the dead, honouring them, remembering them, praying for them, hoping they’re well and happy. Nollag (Christmas in Irish, again applying to the whole month of December, but also being used for Yule) is for celebrating in the face of the winter’s darkness, taking joy in the living, in the young, in the future, in the hope. By Christmas Day, the days are, technically, getting longer again, once the winter solstice is over. It’s celebrating almost in defiance of the darkness and holding the strong belief that the light and growth will return. January for me is cleaning up and getting into the final preparations for Imbolc. It’s clearing out the hold, making room for the new to take root and grow. it’s investigating the dark corners of both home and soul, to see what lies stagnant that needs cleaning or removing or dusting or replacing. It’s a time for making things stretch as well, until the first green shoots start to show and depending on the joy from Christmas to last us through this last darkness before the Spring comes again.

These days of course, the darkness of a December night has less effect on us and the difference in days length between December and January is difficult to notice. And yet, we embrace the light in the darkness – look at how many of our Christmas traditions revolve around light – decorations, candles, even brightly coloured wrapping paper. But the notion of a spring clean is a good one, and still prevalent among many people.

Back to Samhain then. And Brigid. This is the time when the harvest is over, first, second and last. No berry or nut should be taken from the plant after this night, since the Devil or the Other Crowd (depending your persuasion) will have taken the goodness from them on Oíche Samhna. What we have now, is what we have to see out the winter. These rhythms don’t worry us as much now, with modern farming and supply chains, but it’s good to remember a time when the apples from the first harvest were safely packed away and brought out on this night as a treat. When the nuts we buy in bushels from the shop now were a real vital filling food to keep things going, calorie wise, for the winter. When the berries were the last sweet treat for a while and when the first green shoots in spring were a craved-for experience.

Brigid cares about us – why wouldn’t she, and we her people. She wants us to do well – as communities, as individuals. She wants us to survive the coming winter while accepting that not all will. And she wants us to have the appropriate way of grieving for those who do leave us. Many people who follow Brigid are not Catholic, have never been Catholic, have no wish to be Catholic. Equally, many people who follow Brigid are not Irish, have never been Irish, have no wish to be Irish. And those people come from different traditions and habits. But I speak here as an Irish pagan Catholic, deeply rooted in those traditions and habits. I view Brigid through that lens, through the lore, through the traditions of my forebears.

November is for the dead. Remembering them. Praying for them. Making sure we’re right with them, making sure we’ve not left them out. It’s not to keep them with us, for surely they have their own journeys to be about, but to know there’s a place for them here if they wish it. Admittedly, everyone has some ancestor they don’t want visiting, and you deal with them as you would any unwanted visitor. But the loved ones, the ones who are welcome, wherever they are, it does us no harm to remember them and wish them well. And Brigid knows and understands grief. She knows and understands loss. She knows the immediate sharp pain and the longer, dull ache of realising someone isn’t there any more. November gives us the chance to grieve.

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