Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Samhain: The Transformative Sabbat

Following is a sermon I gave for a lay service at our church in 2006.

Good morning. Merry Meet. My name is Amy Bradstreet.
And autumn happens to be one of my favorite seasons. We even have a cat named Autumn. I, like many of you probably, find this season invigorating, with its bright colors and crisp air and I think of it as a transition season, like spring. I use the word transition because we leave one season of constancy, be it warm days, green trees and sandals or the other constant of bare limbs, barren earth and wool scarves. Summer and winter gobble up about eight months of the calendar between them. Predictable in most ways, right? But those transition seasons-- spring and autumn? Let's just say they can keep a body and soul busy. We can compare spring to autumn and find a polychromatic landscape in both, as well as cool air, calluses from garden rakes, the unexpected snowfall or balmy day, new routines, new wardrobes, new projects, new passions, new energies...ah. I see. It's not so much that spring and autumn are transition seasons, they are transformative seasons. Transformative. That one thing can make itself into another-- can leave one state and enter another state of being is a powerful concept. It is in this transition season, like autumn where we all have the power of transformation. I argue that it is in autumn, in this time when the veil is lifted between our world and that realm of all those before us that we can transform from one state of being into another.

Now this is not an idea original to me. It is an integral part of the path I follow. Mine is an earth-based spirituality and I recognize myself simply as pagan--eclectic- Gaia,-Celtic-witch if you want to be picky. Just pagan will do fine. Paganism encompasses myriad beliefs and practices. My own beliefs and practices surely borrow heavily from many spiritual paths and I do not take credit for blazing the trail. But my path is deeply personal and deeply felt and I welcome this turning of the wheel, this sabbat, Samhain.

Samhain, many know as Halloween, is the third and final harvest of the wheel as it begins the first day of winter, the darkening and the new year. Most of us are probably more familiar with welcoming the new year deep in the middle of winter. Before I had the language to match my beliefs, celebrating the new year in a non-transition season and trying to muster the energy to to actualize resolutions I tacked to myself without a whole lot of introspection, well, it didn't make sense to me. I always felt the new year in autumn. The season of putting food by and sewing and new school supplies always resonated in me as the new year. When I gained the language and the tools of my path that recognized this, Samhain, as the new year, ah, my instincts were validated. Samhain has become such an important sabbat or holy day in my life.

The time between second harvest of Mabon, held during the autumn equinox in September, and Samhain on October 31 is a busy, busy time in my house, and sometimes it can be difficult to stay mindful of the richness this sabbat has to offer and the beautiful symbols and the meaningful ritual it brings to my life and my family's. But helpful reminders abound if I can pay attention just long enough to see that dying sun on the horizon, a bit earlier in the evening each day and I know that the Sun God goes back to the womb of his Mother. I see the cobwebs spanning the world of browning sunflowers to fading hyssop in our garden, telling me that our world touches other worlds too, and we are not so disparate or distanced as we might think. I see the arrival of pomegranates on the shelves in the store and am reminded of Persephone's new hope in her dark underworld imprisonment found in six ruby seeds and I bring the fruit home to put on our altar table. At this time of year I gather my organic bulbs from Fedco and try to remember how the garden will look in the spring as I place the promise of daffodils into the earth. I pass in front of the mirror and notice a few more gray hairs. I know that I will transform from mother-queen to crone with more turnings of the wheel. I carve pumpkins and scoop out seeds, bake them and eat them and I know I have seeds of promise and hope within me. I light the inside of the pumpkin and I am reminded to nurture my inner flame, my spark and let it shine out while also cradling that blaze that heats inward and gives me power. The falling leaves remind me to release old grudges, sorrows and old pain. I dress up in costumes with my children and we become, for an evening, other beings. We imagine possibilities and sometimes the never realized. And I see the deer in the fields, Herne the Horned God and he reminds me to be thankful for all the animals and plants that put food on our table. And finally, our garden fades, the leaves decay, but the rich compost will nourish our plants and I know that from death comes birth. All of these symbols surround me and I feel blessed.

Seeing the symbols and recognizing their power and meaning is not enough. To feel blessed is wonderful. But not always do I or you feel blessed. Sometimes we have pain and loss and grief. Sometimes we have anger and old habits, old patterns that no longer fit and we need new symbols and stories. We need to transform. Samhain beckons us to look inward, to go deep, to be deep within ourselves as the earth grows ever darker and cold. We have to face that dark and live with it and hunker down with it like the bulb in the soil. In the dark of ourselves we can find passages that frighten us, just like the rooms for some haunted mansion, rooms full of cobwebs that appear to tangle and strangle us, threaten to hold us back. We may struggle to get ourselves free of the cobwebs that we feel ensnare us only to find that we are still connected. Or we may wrap ourselves in a silky tomb and trap our spirits forever if we are too afraid to go down one more passage. But maybe around that next corner we find the answer, the clearer air, the gentle threads that trail behind us like our past, free from the snare yet shaped by the connection forever. Or if we work very hard, we can see that the mansion is not haunted after all and we are only nearer to those souls before us. Having gone deep like this, having explored those dark rooms, we learn what we keep and what we let go. And then we blossom when the cold melts and the light returns.

So I will go home. I will plant those bulbs and wait. I will save seeds, eat some and spread compost on my garden. And I will welcome the dark. I will go deep this Samhain. I will witness the turning of the wheel, know the promise of returning light, I will let go, shore up and move forward. I'll be me, a bit grayer perhaps. I know I'll be transformed.

Blessed Be and Blessed Samhain.

(c) Amy Bradstreet, October 15, 2006 Lay Service, Unitarian Universalist Harvest Service, a pagan's perspective.


  1. Beautiful.

    And this?
    "My own beliefs and practices surely borrow heavily from many spiritual paths and I do not take credit for blazing the trail."

    Well said - I too feel that I have many influences and spiritual paths that all converge within me, making me who I am. I love the symbolism and richness of this time of year and how its energy matches my own and love bringing the concepts and ancient traditions into our home for my sons.

  2. This is wonderful Amy! I just love the "I know that I will transform from mother-queen to crone with more turnings of the wheel." part!

    Fall is a time to slow down even though I don't until after Halloween. We have 3 birthdays, an anniversary and Halloween all in a ten day span at our house! Then I can slow down:)
    I like the thought of hunkering down with the darkness and going deep within. I'll have to remind myself of this because by early March I'm about to go mad! I'll remember the promise of light and regrowth is just around the corner.
    This was wonderful, thank you for sharing this! Oh and I love Autumn so much I named my daughter Autumn Rose:)

  3. That was really lovely Amy. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thank you, everyone, for reading and for your lovely comments.

    Incidentaly, I added a column of books from our library onto my blog of books that we use regularly and find most helpful.

    Thanks again, everyone!

  5. I really love this concept: "The falling leaves remind me to release old grudges, sorrows and old pain." Yes, so true. I've also long felt Autumn to be a new beginning borne of the end of summer and growth. But the idea of using the depths of winter to explore, know and renew our inner selves is quite powerful! I'll let you know how that works for me in late February...!

  6. Denise, Anet, and Annette-- thank you, again. I think it's very evident that you all embrace the season's symbolism in your home. I must get out the beeswax and dip some leaves, Denise. And Anet, you've gone all out decorating your home, it's fabulous. Annette (My Pepitas), we loved the little mice and rats on the staircase.

    And Anet, that's one busy Oct for you! Wow. That's like spring for us. I've always thought your daughter's name is beautiful.

    Again, thanks for reading. <3

  7. I am very happy to read your post.. it was introduced to me a few days ago (I would have indulged myself earlier but i have been seriously preparing for one of our Christmas craft shows) by Anet of Purple Squirrel.. and I'm glad she did... I recognize so much that I read here.. and in other posts...

    I am from Celtic heritage but I am just learning more about Samhain now.. although nature has always been my guide... just a natural thing...

    You are so knowledgeable ..

    this is a beautiful posting and the audience must have been moved by your presentation... I was...

    It is a pleasure to meet you...

  8. Hi Gwen, thanks so much for your kind comments and for stopping by and reading. I know I've seen you in the blog neighborhood, so merry meet!



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