Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.
As September fades towards its dying embers, it is almost impossible to escape the thought that summer is but a memory and that the autumn season is upon us. This is a cause of sorrow for many and, accordingly, in art autumn is a season that is traditionally associated with melancholy. In Keats’ poem To Autumn, for example, he describes the season as a time of “mellow fruitfulness”; while the autumn-themed poetry of W B Yeats and the French poet Paul Verlaine is similarly characterised by a strong sense of sorrow. In contrast, I for one always look forward to the beginning of October as being, in my eyes at least, the official start of autumn in this country. Summer wanes and the year slouches on towards winter, green things fade and twilight comes earlier, but I don’t see this as any reason for despair. On the contrary, with the promise of Halloween and Bonfire Night casting their long and delicious shadows over the season, for me it is a time to revel in the still cold night and the falling leaves which echo the fall of the year. If you listen closely, you can already hear the steady beat of the drums of autumn.