There’s a frost on the ground this morning, and crisp autumn leaves crunch beneath my boots as I walk to work. For a few weeks the mornings will be light again, but the evenings have been plunged into darkness. Yesterday evening I stood outside and felt the chill in the air, smelt the telltale aroma of a bonfire burning somewhere far away. The moon has been bold and bright these past few days, and while it’s waning now it still manages to light up the sky.
Halloween is upon us.
This special time of year has been celebrated in one way or another for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It marks the halfway point between the autumn equinox and winter solstice as communities prepare for the long, dark months ahead. During this time, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is said to weaken, allowing spirits (both malevolent and benign) to slip into our world. Celebrated in one of its earliest forms as Samhain (pronounced “sa-win” or “sow-een”), this marrying of our world and the otherworld was an important part of Celtic calendar.
Many modern Halloween celebrations originate from Samhain and other gaelic festivals, and it’s believed by some scholars that the festival was Christianized into Halloween by the early church. Samhain focused on remembering and honouring the dead while harmful or mischievous spirits were warded off. It involved lighting bonfires and preparing meals using the recent harvest, setting a place at the family table for the dead. Often, people would dress themselves and their children in disguises to confuse any evil spirits who may have crossed over during this liminal time. In Ireland, offerings would be left for the aos sí (spirits or fairies) in exchange for their careful watch and blessings during the winter.
Samhain is the time of year where people celebrate being at one with nature’s rhythms as part of the cycle of life and death. As the cold creeps in, plants and flowers in the garden begin to wither and die and the harvest is over, leaving the fields bare. In early cultures, cattle were brought back from summer pastures at this time and livestock was chosen and slaughtered ready for winter.
Early celtic people had to be in tune with nature all year round and pay close attention to the changing of the seasons so they could better prepare their homes, livestock and farms. Today, most of us have the luxury of central heating and a local supermarket, so the changing of the seasons can often pass us by. Farming has modernised to make overwintering animals easier, and produce which cannot be grown in the UK during the winter can be shipped in from overseas. Samhain, which once served to remind us of the encroaching winter and the impact the season has on the world around us, is now more widely celebrated as Halloween.
If you’re feeling a little traditional this year, why not take part in some Samhain celebrations as well as apple-bobbing and trick-or-treating?
Start by taking a nature walk somewhere near your home. A forest, wood or patch of wild land is a perfect place for a spot of natural contemplation. Observe the changing world around you, take note of the colours of the leaves and keep an eye out for wild birds and animals. When you place yourself in a wild space like this, you remind yourself that you’re a part of nature just as much as the trees growing around you or the animals scurrying through the brush. If it’s permitted, collect some objects to bring home with you.
If it’s safe to do so, you could light a bonfire in your garden or kindle flames in a fireplace. The bonfire mimics the sun and its power to hold back the darkness and death so closely associated with winter. In later traditions, bonfires were said to have protective powers. When your bonfire is lit, write a habit you want to break out of or rut that you’ve found yourself stuck in and throw it into the fire as you imagine yourself adopting a new, healthier way of life.
Because the boundaries between worlds is thought to be thinner at this time, many people hold séances or practice divination using runes or tarot cards to seek guidance for the year ahead. This is also a way people give thanks to and remember those who have passed on.
You can also prepare a celebratory meal. A Samhain meal should focus on fruits and vegetables, wild game (if available) and foraged foods. All the food should be served at the same time complete with candles and a centerpiece and a place should be set and food should be served for the memory of the dead. Get some traditional Samhain herbs and spices to add some flavour to your meal: Rosemary is said to be a herb of remembrance: perfect for observing the tradition of remembering loved ones who have passed away. It’s also often used as a smudge for protecting magic spaces. Mugwort is another herb used by different magic practitioners who believe it encourages lucid dreaming and healing.
If you’re not feeling convinced, it’s always helpful to remember that you don’t have to believe in magic to grow useful, practical plants in your home or garden. Here’s a list of things you can grow yourself which are thought to help with a variety of illnesses and ailments.
Aloe Vera has been grown in homes and gardens for years thanks to its healing properties. The clear, sticky gel found inside an aloe vera plant is believed to be a effective moisturiser and is thought to relieve pain and speed up healing time for minor burns. Ancient Greek physician Dioscorides wrote what is thought to be the first written account of the supposed healing properties of Aloe Vera around AD 41 and by the second century it was an important component of the physician’s pharmacy.
Aloe Vera is an easy, stylish plant which is great to grow indoors. To harvest the gel from the plant, you need to remove a mature leaf from the plant by cutting it as close to the base as possible. Let the yellow sap drain from the leaf, then give it a quick rinse. Using a sharp knife, remove the serrated edges of the aloe leaf then remove the top and bottom pieces of skin (similar to filleting a fish). You should be left with a leaf-shaped sliver of translucent gel, which can applied to the skin. The easiest way to store aloe gel is to cut it into small cubes, where you can keep it in the fridge for about a week or freeze it for a month.
Lavender is famous for its relaxing aroma and has been used for thousands of years all around the world. Lavender oil is said to have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties which can help bug bites and even minor burns and one study noted that wounds treated with lavender oil closed faster. Lavender is most popular, however, for its calming effect and the benefits it can have for those suffering from restlessness, insomnia or anxiety.
Lavender can be grown both inside and outdoors. Lavender should be harvested when the buds have formed but the flowers haven’t yet opened. Cut a good bundle of lavender, tie it together then hang the bunches upside down in a warm, dry spot. After 2-4 weeks, you can simply rub or shake the lavender buds off into a bowl or tray then store them however you like. Lavender is great for putting in mini drawstring bags to be tucked beneath pillows to aid sleep or even placed into a draw to keep your clothes smelling fresh.
This popular garden herb has been used in alternative medicine for years to treat a wide range of illnesses and ailments. Peppermint is one of the most widely consumed herbal teas (also known as tisanes) and is said to ease the effects of nausea, cramps, diarrhea and even morning sickness or period pain. When applied as an oil, peppermint is said to help relieve headaches, muscle pain, toothache and itchiness. This versatile herb also contains menthol, which makes it a natural decongestant.
You can make your own mint tea at home with just a few ingredients. Rinse off your freshly harvested mint then give the leaves a gentle crush to release the flavour. Peppermint tea is best made with hot but not boiling water, so boil a kettle and leave it to cool for a few minutes. Place 7-10 leaves in your mug then pour the hot water over them, making sure they’re completely submerged. The tea then needs to steep – the longer you leave it, the stronger it will be! You can add extra flavour with honey or freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Like peppermint, chamomile is an enduring medicinal herb which is most popularly consumed in tea. Chamomile is said to be great for tackling period pain, reducing inflammation and encouraging sleep, and the oil can assist healing and help relieve eczema.
You can also brew your own chamomile tisane at home by following just a few easy steps. An infuser teapot is ideal for this, but if you don’t have one you can make makeshift tea-bag from cheesecloth or pour the tea through a fine strainer when it’s ready. If you’re using freshly picked flowers, you should use them right after harvesting. Each cup requires around two heaped teaspoons of flowerheads (or more for a stronger infusion) which need to be steeped in boiling water for around ten minutes. You can add honey, mint or even apple slices to your tea to give it more flavour!
Lemons have been a staple of cold and flu remedies for many years. These bitter fruits are a great way to ease the pain of a sore throat or a cough during the winter. Simply mix the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon with hot water and honey for a quick and easy homemade cough mixture.
While not the hardiest plant, lemons are one of the most popular citrus fruits to grow in the UK. They should be grown in a pot and can stay outside during the summer then brought in over the winter. You can also buy miniature lemon trees which are great for keeping on a windowsill.
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.