The Calends of Winter

Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.

This article is from a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. This piece was originally published on Tony’s own website, The Enchanted Silence.

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall”, says Jordan Baker in the Great Gatsby. Maybe this is true, that a sense of clarity and new purpose emerges as the seasons change and old growth dies away. Related or not, a number of cultures celebrate New Year in the autumn season, and scholars such as James George Frazer have suggested that the autumn feast of Samhain was the re-start of the year for the celtic peoples. Certainly, Samhain is the starting point of the cycle of seasonal festivals known as the Wheel of the Year. 

The Wheel of the Year in its current form was first popularised in Wicca and other neo-pagan practices but at heart it is a simple cycle of festivals that tracks the waxing and waning of the sun, and the ebb and flow of the natural world, in a way that finds increasing popularity and resonance with people of many different perspectives. As an expression of the annual rhythms of the sun, it provides a connection to a world that is infinitely more grounded and real than the chatter, dramas and numbing of our social media, and in pointing outwards towards the natural world, invites us to encounter the elemental presences of the sun, the wind, the sky and the trees, whose friendship may well help the healing of our souls.

The festivals of the Wheel of the Year are distributed across the year, providing an even rhythm to mark out the journey of the earth around the sun. The two solstices, at the start and mid-point of our modern calendar year, mark the lowest and highest points of the sun in the midday sky, and the spring and autumn equinoxes make up the half way points between these two. The Wheel of the Year is completed by the cross-quarter days which intersect these four. The four cross-quarter days, in this setting, are remembered by their names from the old celtic world – Samhain, Imbolc, Beltain and Lughnasadh. In medieval times these festivals became aligned with the roman calendar and in some practices they are celebrated on the first night and first day of each quarter – 31st October & 1st November, 31st January & 1st February, 30th April & 1st May and 31st July & 1st August. Other practices, and possibly the older beliefs, maintain the symmetry of the year, by celebrating the cross-quarter festivals on the exact half-way point between the quarter days.

And so this year, the solar, cross-quarter celebration of Samhain falls on Saturday 6th November, forty-five days after the autumn equinox and forty-five days before the winter solstice – in the Northern hemisphere. The name Samhain is gaelic, pronounced ‘sow-in’ with a short second syllable, and the festival was celebrated by this name historically in Ireland and Scotland. The name seems to simply mean ‘Summer’s End’ and has since become the name of the month of November in modern Irish. In Welsh, at least since medieval times, the festival is referred to as Calan Gaeaf. ‘Calan’ is a Welsh version of the latin word calends which means the first day of the month and is known to English-speakers through the word calendar. In Welsh, Dydd Calan is the name now given to the first of January but the older year is bracketed by Calan Haf and Calan Gaeaf, the Calends of Summer and the Calends of Winter, the first days of May and November respectively forming the gateways into the lighter and darker halves of the year.

In the Wheel of the Year, Samhain is the time of the ‘third harvest’, ending the harvest season, which started at Lughnasadh at the beginning of August. It is a potent time of year; the life forces of the natural world are very evidently in ebb, as the elan vital withdraws and is hidden away until its new expression in the spring. The sombre feel and misty palette of the season means that this season is naturally associated with the human dead as well as the ‘dying’ of the year. This is one point where the Christian calendar corresponds to the Wheel of the Year with the three day festival of All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls spanning from the last day of October to the second day of November and aligning with Samhain (if celebrated on the eve of 1st November) in the gaelic tradition and Calan Gaeaf in the welsh.

Christian practice is reticent about directly addressing the dead and so All Saints Day on 1st November and All Souls Day on the 2nd are celebrated in most settings as times to solemnly remember (and pray for) the Christian departed in the presence of God. Where God has been lost from the picture, post-Christian celebrations of Halloween are an empty swirl of dressing up, parties and a mish mash of images of the supposedly macabre and sinister. At this point in the Wheel of the Year however, the presence of our predecessors – our ancestors – is front and centre.

In Wales, Calan Haf and Calan Gaeaf, along with St John’s Eve at the time of the summer solstice were in folk tradition ysbryd nosau, ‘spirit nights’ when departed souls were close at hand and it was an auspicious time to seek their guidance. In Irish tradition, Samhain was a time when the fairy mounds, or sidhe, opened so that their inhabitants, the faerie aes sídhe, could come and go in the mortal world. Given that the sidhe are in reality the neolithic and bronze age burial mounds that dot the Irish landscape and that the aes sidhe are equated with the Tuatha de Danann, the legendary predecessors who turned sideways into the light and yielded the prosaic, everyday world to the newly arrived Milesians, then this is a ready image for a night that brings close to hand, those who have gone before.

In a different cultural context, indigenous traditions fused with Spanish Catholicism in Central America and emerged in the form of the present day Dia de los Murtos (All Hallowstide in Spanish). The Pixar movie Coco captures much of this occasion which goes far beyond the colourful aesthetic of the calaveras. There are beautiful scenes of the dead streaming back across the rainbow bridge, strewn here with the aztec marigold flower, to revisit their living family, and the narrative of the film is one of generational healing. The film also shows the traditional celebration of Dia de los Muertos with families visiting the cemetery to tend and renew the family graves and literally feast in the presence of the dead. In many places the feast is celebrated with great levity, with funny and loving memories of the dead brought to mind and retold.

In the English speaking world, much has been lost here. Samhain has been labelled as ‘pagan’ and burdened with an association with witchcraft. The presence of those who have gone before us has been turned into ghosts and ghouls, and Halloween has become a meaningless carnival of the grotesque. Our collective state might be improved by the rediscovery of rites which help us reconnect with our own mortality and the long lines of those who have loved, wept, strived and dreamt before us.

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