Day of reckoning

I’m sure most of us know that Hallowe’en was originally an old Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow’an), but not everyone knows that Samhain was about cattle, crops and kin, back in the day.
Imagine you’ve been working your butt off to harvest everything you can before first frost, before winter really hits. The teenagers and unmarried folks have been up in the hills all summer, pasturing the cattle herds on abundant summer grass in a tradition called transhumance. After living in booley huts for the season, they are bringing the livestock back to the lowlands, and you get to see family members for the first time in months.
But a few other important things happened on Samhain. Rent day, for one.

In early Irish society, land was owned, not by individuals, but by the clan (or tribe) as a whole, and administered by a chief. The chief assigned the use of portions of land based on skill, family connections, popularity and politics. You would also be set up with a grubstake of livestock, housing and equipment based on your station in life. At some point you had to repay the inital investment, but any “surplus” livestock and crops you could produce were yours. Sometimes rent was payable in livestock, sometimes in service to the chief, and sometimes in agricultural products like butter or malted barely for brewing. Anyone who wasn’t a chief or clan head owed rent to someone up the food chain, but often a chieftain would use some of the bounty to have a Samhain feast for the people s/he governed.
The myriad details of these transactions were governed by a complex system called the Brehon laws. Another facet of Samhain administered by this law code was the uptick in livestock value that was accounted for on this day. Every animal and piece of equipment on a rath was worth an assigned value (like in an insurance policy). Calves that were born before Beltaine of that year (May 1st) would now be worth even more money. That was always a good thing to a struggling farmer. Samhain is also the day when all crops and wild fruits were considered off-limits. Anything not harvested was food for the fairies or Puca. Children were warned against eating berries left unpicked for fear of angering the fairy folk, that it would make them sick. In more practical terms, farmers should have their crops in by now, and know just how much food they can count on until the next harvest.

So, the cattle are in for the winter, and valued higher according to their age and gender. The rent is paid, crops are in, family are back from the hills, and it’s almost winter. Time for feasting before the cold dark weather settles in for the long haul. And living family members weren’t the only ones ready to reconnect after a long separation. This time of year, the walls between the dead and the living were considered the thinnest, and family members who had passed on were expected to return home, at least for one night. Places were set at the table and around the fire for departed loved ones who might return for a visit.

As times changed, and the Christian religion absorbed indigenous traditions, the focus of Samhain became more about placating ghosts and getting treats than about settling debts and visiting with loved ones. At Seven Trees Farm, we like to celebrate Samhain by enjoying all the harvested yummies, visiting with friends, preparing for winter, and remembering our ancestors.

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4 thoughts on “Day of reckoning”

  1. Thanks for sharing this blog post! We try to learn about how our ancestors lived, not just the daily farm work, but the spiritual interaction with the land, the circle of the year, and the unseen influences experienced as spirits and hallowed places.

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