Autumn Cross-Quarter

Today is the midpoint of autumn, halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. For years now, I’ve felt called to celebrate this date rather than October 31, but feeling connected to a date and knowing how to commemorate it are two different things. One simple thing, though, was figuring out what to call it. I’d been calling it astronomical Samhain, but that’s mostly been confusing. Starting this year, I’ve decided to follow the practice of some humanistic/naturalistic Pagans and call it Autumn Cross-Quarter. If it doesn’t lend itself to quick wishes—I don’t expect to see “Happy Autumn Cross-Quarter!” on greeting cards anytime soon—at least you know it has something to do with the season.

photo credit: derpunk via photopin cc

Ever since I learned that the shift from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar meant that the traditional dates for the cross-quarters no longer fall on the midpoints of the seasons, I’ve felt slightly “off” celebrating them then. Still, I tried. Samhain is big enough that there is a real feeling of community on that date, and there’s power in that. But I’ve drifted away from public rituals over the years, I don’t belong to a coven or similar group, and generally the only celebration of any holiday I have now is the one I do on my own. So it’s made more sense to celebrate the one where my heart is. Which is today, not a week ago.

I’ve been noticing more Pagan observation of November 7 in recent years (or November 6: like the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarters vary a bit in their dates). Sometimes it’s called Samhain, sometimes Autumn Cross-Quarter. Maybe it’s a desire to be more accurate date-wise, but I suspect there are other reasons. After all, if you celebrate Samhain on November 7, you can join our culture in celebrating Halloween on October 31 and not have nearly the schedule conflicts you might otherwise.

An accurate date isn’t the only reason I’m focusing more on the Autumn Cross-Quarter. Samhain is about remembering the dead and honoring the ancestors, and I want to keep that in my Autumn Cross-Quarter celebration. But these holidays also highlight when we are in the year, and I’m drawn more to that aspect: what does it mean to be halfway through autumn? Around here, our glorious fall color has faded as the winds have finally brought down the bulk of the leaves. The temperatures are dropping into sweater weather. It gets darker earlier now that we’ve gone off Daylight Saving Time, which just feels right, even if it’s putting a damper on my evening activities (like the colder weather wouldn’t have?). It’s time to prepare traditional foods, light a candle in the growing darkness, and settle in (at least psychologically) for the year.

Samhain what-if

I was reading At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, when I came upon this:

Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three—sometimes one season in two—so that it could recover its ability to produce healthy crops. This meant that in any given year at least one-third of the nation’s farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.

Bryson explains that it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that English farmers learned about crop rotation: planting crops like clover or turnips in those fallow furlongs that would both replenish the soil and provide winter fodder for animals. More surviving livestock in turn resulted in more manure, which improved the soil in its own right. This agricultural revolution made both the quality and the quantity of English harvests far more reliable.

So, if the English had begun practicing crop rotation centuries earlier, would Samhain be part of the modern Wiccan calendar?

Ancestor disconnect

You can’t really say my family belongs to any one denomination of Christianity. Me, I was raised as a non-practicing United Methodist. Certain of my cousins, on the other hand, are Catholic and their Catholicism is obviously important to them. So I’ve found it both puzzling and charming that these devout Catholics are firm believers in the powers of the ancestors. Can’t remember where you put your glasses? “Did you ask Grandma?” Need a parking space? “Ask Grandma!” I’ve never heard any of them mention a saint’s name, much less Jesus or the Virgin Mary—Grandma handles our family’s problems just fine on her own.

I envy my cousins’ easy connection to our ancestors (one ancestor, anyway), as I’ve never felt it myself. This wasn’t an issue back in those non-practicing Methodist days, but as a Pagan, it comes up every fall (Samhain) at a minimum. I have never known how to honor these ancestors who are just names to me without feeling hypocritical. Even now, having had friends and close family die, I am still at a loss about how to do anything meaningful, or if I should be doing anything at all. What does it mean to honor your ancestors, anyway? Ancestor altars sound nice, but my track record for maintaining and using altars is iffy at best. Nor do I come from a culture where altars were in everyday use. I just can’t see my parents or grandmother being comfortable with an altar, which defeats the purpose of honoring them with one. I’m not sure if there even is life after death. If there isn’t, are ancestors anything more than just memories? And if you have no personal memories of them, what then?

Adding to my frustration, it seems that everyone that I’ve read on the topic has found a practice that works for them, be it an altar, a ritual, special prayers, or something else. (Of course, if they’re comfortable with their practice, they’re likely to feel confident enough to write about it. If there are other confused souls like myself, they may very well be keeping their doubts to themselves. Not that this nicely reasonable thought really reduces my insecurities!) And so I’ve added ancestors—the whole messy topic of them—to my ever-growing list of Pagan-themed insecurities, along with wondering why I never sense energy, don’t remember ever having a psychic impression of anything, and can’t seem to get the hang of keeping a Book of Shadows.

Last week, I started rereading The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman. I’m having the same reaction I had when I read it in 2007: I’m fascinated by his ideas if not necessarily his writing. But this time around, sentences are jumping out at me that I don’t remember noticing the first time around, such as this quote about ancestors:

‘Ancestry’ in our culture implies chromosomal connection; ancestors are those humans from whom I have inherited my body tissues. Biogenetics replaces the spirit world.

In other societies an ancestor could be a tree, a bear, a salmon, a member of the dead, a spirit in a dream, a special spooky place. These may be addressed as ‘Ancestor’ and an altar home built for them, away from the home you inhabit. Ancestors are not bound to human bodies and certainly not confined to physical antecedents whose descent into your sphere allowed only via your natural family. Only if a member of the natural family (itself not always determinable), say a grandparent or an uncle or an aunt, is worthy enough, powerful enough, knowledgeable enough, may he or she become an ancestor in the sense of a guardian spirit. To be an ancestor you do not need to be dead, but you do need to know the dead—that is, the invisible world and how and where it touches the living.

Is Hillman factually correct? I have no idea. But as we enter fall and the season of dying, and as Samhain begins to come up on calendars and in conversation, I find the idea of ancestors who aren’t just the people who came before you on your family tree to be a relief. On the one hand, a tree or a special spooky place are something my oh-so-sensible mind can appreciate; on the other hand, they’re not so determinedly non-Pagan that it would be inappropriate to honor them in a Pagan fashion. I don’t have to rush to a decision on if I believe in an afterlife or not. Hillman’s definition frees me to find ancestors who mean something to me, leaving my deceased relatives as family.

The melancholy season

Samhain was lovely this year. It started out cloudy, but by late morning, the clouds thinned and the sun stayed out for the rest of the day. Whether it’s due to the warmer weather we’ve had this year or a lack of rain to knock the leaves down, we still have fall color to admire, and it was just cool enough to require a jacket but not so cold that you wanted to pull on a heavy coat.

Ordinarily, I’m a lover of beautiful fall days, but the cloudy day that we started with might have been a better fit for my mood. I’ve been feeling gently melancholic as Samhain has approached. Not depressed, not miserable, not even properly sad, just melancholic. It’s actually been sort of pleasant.

October 31 is developing a split personality, what with it being both Halloween and Samhain. Halloween may be many things—wild, scary, cute (my street hosts a safe daylight trick-or-treat event, and I got to see many Very Small People in Delightful Costumes yesterday)—but it doesn’t usually manage to be serious, much less melancholic. And while Samhain can be joyful, the most meaningful Samhains I remember were the ones that focused more on loss, grieving, and death.

Back at Mabon, which was a bit of a last-minute affair, I told myself that I was going to be better prepared for Samhain. With a month and a half lead time, I should be able to plan a ritual, set it up, and know the important bits by heart. I’ve ended up doing nothing towards this goal. I was feeling embarrassed by this—the high point of the Wiccan calendar, and I couldn’t even pull together the most basic of rituals? Eventually it sank in that a full-blown ritual, even a simple one, just doesn’t mesh with the mood of the season. It’s too colorful, too exciting, and too easy to be distracted by trying to get all the parts right and not actually experiencing the holiday itself.

So my Samhain observation is going to be minimalistic this year. A candle. Darkness. A blanket. Apple cider. Quiet music. And time alone to just grieve the losses, reflect on the year past, and just be in the melancholy.