And so, we reach another of the year’s cross-quarter days. Halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the Christian calendar places All Saints’ Day (November 1).
But the night before celebrates something more ancient – the Celtic festival of Samhain, the night when fairies and spirits roamed freely. A night for bonfires and for costumed wanderers going from door to door, begging gifts of food in exchange for recited verses. A night when places were set at table to welcome the souls of the departed.
Today, Samhain is our Halloween. We celebrate it in a watered-down form, with costumes and chocolates. But Halloween is largely devoid of the ancient fears which accompanied shorter days and longer nights.
Samhain was a time to look forward, without anticipation, to long months of dwindling food-stocks – a time to commemorate the prehistoric fear that the days would continue growing shorter until the sun simply vanished, plunging the world into a perpetual winter’s night.
We moderns live a different life. Winter’s cold might bring higher power bills, but we know we will stay warm and dry. And that the local grocery will continue offering an abundance of fresh produce from the tropics and the southern hemisphere.
Most of us will work as many hours as we did in summertime – though we’ll drink more coffee to combat our bodies’ urge go to retire earlier and sleep later, in obedience to the southering sun.
Today, we live a life detached – at several removes from the natural hardships of the revolving year. This may not last, but it is our reality for the moment.
Fall has ever been my favorite season of the year – and Halloween my favorite holiday.
The colors of this season touch the heart – and not just the flaming leaves of the deciduous trees. Evergreens stand out in deeper contrast to their brilliant neighbors.
Ripening grain crops add their golden-somber hues.
And the sky! Whether cloud-swept or bird’s egg blue, there’s no sky like an autumn sky.
The air grows delicious. Sounds seem to carry farther – the cries of children diving into leaf piles. The thud of a kicked football. Honking geese, southbound in V-formation.
For all the amnesiac qualities of cocoon-like modernity, fall brings us – willy-nilly – face to face with symbols of youth and its departure; of ripeness and decay; of life’s beauty and evanescence.
Fall is our one, surviving memento mori – a last reminder that life is fleeting, that Death comes for us all.
The tears that come more easily this season can signify something more than allergies. There is a sadness in autumn’s sweetness.
But there is joy, too. Fall is an ideal time to take up old, neglected pastimes – or to start new ones.
Only spring is a better time to get out the old glove, oil it up, and play a brisk game of catch. October – the month of the World Series – is a fine time to rediscover the satisfying pop of a well-thrown ball meeting a well-handled glove.
It’s an ideal time for walking, too. A brisk, blue-sky afternoon affords an almost irresistible call to get out and step out.
It’s a good time to visit farmers’ markets – and perhaps to begin planning a spring garden of your own.
Or to stock up on local honey – a good remedy for those allergies – and consider putting a beginning bee kit on your Christmas list.
For me, this fall has been the occasion to purchase a good-sized, rotating composter for the garden adjoining the house I’m renting in Staunton. I finished assembling it on Thursday, and the next day, the first mix of kitchen scraps and fallen leaves went into the hopper.
I’ve been walking a bit, too. What seemed burdensome in summertime now feels like a treat. The 1.3 mile circuit of Gypsy Hill Park is the perfect length for starting to build up my endurance.
Still, there are things I miss.
I miss gleaning. When I was a kid, my family would take bushel baskets and walk to a large field where our neighbor grew acres and acres of feed corn. He harvested his crop mechanically, a process which left a fair number of ears lying on the ground. With his permission, we would load our baskets with orange-yellow ears as treats for our horses in the cold season.
I also miss the thrill of trick-or-treating – a largely unsupervised activity in those less-fearful days. Going out into the dark streets with a few friends and visions of loot was an experience I would not have missed for anything.
It saddens me that today’s children can’t experience the same sense of independence and adventure.
For this, too, is one of the feelings of autumn: Nostalgia for the past – but a sweet sense, too, that your own particular past contained small, pungent delights you wouldn’t exchange for all that is modern.