October has always been my favorite month, my most loved time of year, and Samhain my favorite of the sabbats. Perhaps it is because I am an October baby. Yet I think it is more so because of the month itself, the mystery of this turn of the wheel, all of the beauty amongst all the decay, and a time to remember my fallen leaves.
Mother Earth, weak and tired from the weight of ripened fruits and vegetables and branches of abundant leaves and flowers, is lightening her load, sending leaves from the trees in a flourish of gold, yellow, orange and red. The sun is warm yet the breezes are cool and crisp and the rich earthy scents of wood smoke and decaying leaves linger on the currents. Hearty and sweet aromas of beef stews, candied apples, and cinnamon waft from kitchen windows and transport me back to autumns of yesteryear. Patios, porches, doorsteps and yards are adorned in symbols of the final harvest like hay bales, cornstalks, gourds, pumpkins, and the jeweled colors of chrysanthemums, breathtaking against the skeletal remains of summer gardens. Everywhere there is magic, an electrical charge of power rippling around me. The veil is thinning. Sometimes I think I can see it, a dark violet shimmer and wave in the night sky behind the stars, like a curtain on the stage of the universe. At times, I feel it, a gentle tug at my soul, nudging me to fly free into the dark. Samhain is near.
I spend most of October with death and decay as I put my garden to rest for the winter. The once bursting garden beds are now full of withered and brown branches, dried seedpods, and spent blossoms. I layer them with fallen autumn leaves, burying them to be reborn in spring. In whispers, I thank each plant for their beauty and abundance as I cover them for another year and wish them a safe and peaceful slumber through the ice, snow and harsh winter winds. I harvest the last of the herbs, bringing them indoors for drying, my kitchen becoming a fragrant final resting place for hanging bunches of herbs and a reminder of the life that was, just a short time ago, growing all around me. Most of my summer visitors have flown south for the winter. Those that remain find shelter in bird houses, wood piles, and mounds of twigs and fallen leaves. After all my plants and shrubs are safely laid to rest for the year and my feathered and furried friends have settled in for the dark time of the year, I leave gifts of thanks to the spirits of nature, to Mother Earth, and to the flora and fauna throughout the garden.
Indoors, I prepare my home to welcome the dead, my beloved dead, my fallen leaves. In and around the usual autumn and Samhain décor upon my altar, I place a garland of autumn leaves and to it I pin the pictures of the family and friends, the people and pets, who slipped beyond the veil. The pictures have become too recent, no longer the faded sepia or black and white photos of great-grandparents or grandparents but the colorful images of parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and childhood friends, bringing tears to my eyes and a heart-wrenching sob to my throat as I place them on the altar, hardly believing that they are no longer only a phone call away. I spend many moments just staring at their faces smiling out at me from among the brightly colored autumn leaves, speaking to them, hoping for a reply, sometimes imagining that they wave back at me like the photographs in the Harry Potter movies. Perhaps it is my old Catholic upbringing but I leave the pictures there through November 2nd, All Souls Day. There are some people in those pictures who would appreciate that.
Samhain arrives and I let the magic of the day take over. The pumpkins are carved with jagged smiles and triangular eyes and noses and then lit. The soul cakes are made and set aside for later in the evening. I cleanse and bless the house and gardens, clearing the way for those people in the pictures to drop by for a bit, even if it is for a minute. The dining room table is set for the Ancestor Feast, the traditional meal my mother used to make at Halloween – beef stew, biscuits, and a sweet treat, usually an apple crisp. As always, there is one empty seat at the table with a full place setting for whoever wishes to slip back through the veil and join us. Family and friends gather around the table and stories are told, laughter is heard, and tears are shed through dinner. We remember all of those moments captured in the colorful pictures on the altar and many more moments frozen in time in our memories. Yes, they are here at the table, laughing with us, crying with us, missing us like we miss them. As dinner is cleared away, I quietly mourn the fact that my son is “too old” to trick-or-treat now and page through my mental photo album of every Halloween costume he wore through the years.
As the night winds down, I head outside to my patio to light the Samhain fire pit into which are thrown bunches of dried herbs from my garden and slips of paper on which are written the things I wish to leave behind me now. I mourn what once was and embrace what will be. I celebrate who I was (because we all change with each turn of the wheel) and lay the old me to rest. I rededicate myself to my ever-twisting Pagan path and welcome the new me. I sit under the night sky and the parted veil and talk to my fallen leaves, sharing with them just as I would if they were still just that phone call away. The fire dies down to glowing embers, the ashes of which I will scatter in the garden, and I head indoors for another piece of apple crisp and some spiced apple wine in a spot close to my altar. The Jack O’Lantern smiles down at me from there as I look down the road a bit, with tarot cards or runes, at what may lie ahead.