Honouring our ancestors – a Samhain feast

My friend and I are hosting a feast for the dead

On Saturday 1st November, friends will gather to eat and drink and feel warm together as the nights draw in, as winter envelops us.

Samhain (1st Nov) traditionally marks the Pagan new year – or rather, the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Halloween (31st Oct) is the eve of All Saints and All Souls days. It finds its roots in Samhain (as so many Christian practices derive from earlier Pagan traditions) but is not the same festival.

That said, within both traditions we find that this is a time for paying respect to the dead, when the veil between this world and ‘the other’ is thinnest and we can communicate more easily with those on the other side. We find ourselves confronting death, spirits and our own mortality much more readily than normal.

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I’m not a Christian or a Pagan so I won’t ramble on about ancient practices which I don’t claim as my own. Instead, If you’re interested in Samhain and Halloween origins/traditions, I’ll refer you to this helpful article.

Meanwhile at our feast, we’re making up our own rituals.

We want to honour our ancestors. (And by ‘ancestors’, I don’t just mean members of our families. I have ancestry as a woman, as a queer person, as a tarot reader and as many other things, as well as as a descendent of my genetic family.)

Here’s what we’ll do:

We’ll lay an extra place at the table to represent ‘the ancestor’ – all those who have passed, who are warmly invited to join us.

Everyone will be given a piece of paper and asked to think of one person (or community of people) whom they wish to honour and give thanks to.

The ancestor’s plate will be filled first, and left untouched throughout the meal.

Later on, all who want to can take turns to sit at the empty place at the table, and tell the group who they are honouring and why.

Together, we will toast each ancestor and give thanks for their lessons, their support, their actions and energy.

I’ll be taking a special dish to the feast.

My mum’s been researching our family history for a few years now and I’ll admit I’ve not paid a lot of attention. She told me: ‘Common farm labourers. As far back as I can go. That’s what we did.’ My family are from Shropshire – a rural county in the middle of the UK, bordering Wales.

I asked her for a traditional recipe. She told me about fidget pie which I will almost definitely be taking as pie is my favourite food/signature dish, and cider – well just don’t get me started. I’ll have to replace the ham with something less…dead.

More excitingly, she told me about Shropshire Soul Cakes (that article is worth reading just to hear about Mary Ward on her 101st birthday!)

It turns out that there is a cake from Shropshire which is traditionally eaten on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd). All Souls Day is part of the Christian practices related to Halloween rather than Samhain, but the dish itself feels appropriate for our gathering.

This from Kath of The Ordinary Cook:

In ye olden days it was a tradition that the poor would go a-souling and offer up prayers of remembrance for the relatives of their wealthier neighbours in return for money or food.  Then, in more recent years, it was the children who would sing “A soul-cake, a soul-cake, please good missus, a soul-cake.  One for Peter, one for Paul, three for Him who saved us all” and would receive a soul cake in return. A bit like trick or treating (in the nicer parts of town).

It was/is believed that All Souls Day was/is the day when the spirits of the dead will visit loved ones. I like that idea very much.  I am not at all religious but would love to think that loved ones who are no longer with us are still able to visit and see how we are getting on with the ups and downs that this life throws at us.

Well that’s me sold on soul cakes.From the recipe they sound pretty dull but hey ho, a blob of blackcurrant jam should sort them – I wonder if my pal Mary has made any this year.

As for my ancestor…

There are so many people I would like to honour, to thank for their contributions to the world. As someone who feels truly ignorant about their own family history, I wanted my guest at this party to be a relative, so I would have the opportunity to learn from someone from my own family tree.

I asked mum to share a story and she told me about Granny Price:

Grandma’s grandmother was called Caroline Upton (Granny Price) She was born in 1864 and when she was 7 she started work. There was a foundry in Little Dawley, called Bottony Bay (or known colloquially as that). She would carry pick axe heads from the foundry to the blacksmiths to be ground and sharpened, probably a round trip of a mile each time. She obviously never learnt to read or write.

As you probably know Grandma didn’t know her father. Granny Price brought her up as her unmarried mother Lillian didn’t want her. At some point she was awarded £100 maintenance after a court case (on condition she never contacted her father.) Granny Price used this money to buy sweet stock and turned the front room of their house into a sweet shop. Sadly some unscrupulous salesman sold her some dodgy chocolate she couldn’t neither sell nor return and they lost everything.

Of course Grandma had been clever enough to go on further to school but Granny Price couldn’t afford fees or uniform or whatever. It’s enough to put you of chocolate (or dodgy salesmen at least.)

On a lighter note she did go to prison for a week for fighting because she thought another woman was making advances towards her husband.

A lighter note? Okay! Caroline Upton sounds pretty kick-ass to me. Starting her own business, beating up her competition, a spell in jail, taking in my grandma…and starting work at the age of 7. Wow.

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My great great grandmother Caroline Upton (aka Granny Price) of Dawley, Shropshire – she lived to be 82 and died in 1946.

So I’m inviting Granny Price to join us on Saturday.

I do hope she will come. I wonder what she will teach me? To try before you buy, I should think! I’m wondering about bringing a box of chocolates to make her feel better about that dodgy salesman, but can’t decide if that one is best left in the past.


Will you be honouring anyone this weekend? Is there an inspiring or interesting story from your family or local history, or a trailblazer in your community who bears remembering this samhain/halloween? I’d love to hear about it.


 

PS…

Here’s a post honouring Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who illustrated and co-created the Rider Waite Smith Tarot – another utterly fascinating woman whose story is rarely told.

And here’s a post about The Ancestor – the Wildwood Tarot’s answer to The Hierophant. It’s all about our deep-rooted connection to the natural world and the seasons – roots we are in danger of losing.

14 comments

  1. Annette says:

    Oh your Samhain celebration fabulous! and your (mum’s) story about Granny Price is so inspiring – I confess I do have an affinity for gutsy grandmothers :) From axe head carrier to jail-bird to sweetshop entrepreneur – and onwards and upwards to step-in mum – what a woman! It is a great photo too and I hope she’ll be there to muse over your pie :)

    Bottony Bay made me laugh, I know it’s not the same, but here, on the other side of the world, a hop skip and jump from me, we have ‘Botany Bay’ – the first landing point for Captain Cook – perhaps alluding more to the flora fauna thing, but still, a funny association.

    My ancestry jumps around the world (literally) with many lovely characters, though on this day I would absolutely choose to honour my grandmother Nina – she was a real treasure and my guiding star forever :)

  2. Ellen says:

    Your Granny Price was some woman indeed. I wish you a very wonderful Samhain celebration and lots of fun together with all the guests, here and other other side of the veil.
    Hugs

  3. I will be honoring a few people. One person from my family is my Great Grandmother (Granny), the other is my husbands father who passed away earlier this year, and one person who is not of my family but someone who has helped me as a tarot reader… Pamela Colman Smith! :)

  4. Kath says:

    Thank you for the link Beth, I love your story about Granny Price. Rather weirdly, I live not far from Little Dawley and married a man from nearby Madeley, who is related by marriage to the Uptons. What a small world it is! She sounds like a fine woman indeed.
    Best wishes, I hope you have a fabulous feast, Kath

    • Beth says:

      Thank you Kath! And thanks for sharing your soul cakes recipe… I’m making some today. Um…except I can’t stick to a recipe, and I agreed with you that they sounded dull..so my soul cakes are actually completely different and probably shouldn’t be called soul cakes at all. Ah well!

      Wow it is a small world. Little Dawley eh, most of my family can be traced back to there. I only wish I spoke the lingo.

  5. Bobby says:

    Awesome post Beth! I SO WISH I COULD BE THERE … I am going to check our the All Souls cakes… I love the tradition of honouring our ancestors, no matter where it came from. I always wanted to visit New Mexico for the Amigos de los Muertos celebrations. I am not fond of plastic trick or treat Halloween. Especially when it happens on the eve of May Day as it does here.

    I was in some weird space yesterday. I looked out of the window and saw the fast growing grass that I had just cut, and suddenly thought, has Easter been yet? I was like thrown back into the proper festivals for this time of year. Instead the shops are filled with black rubber spiders and orange plastic pumpkins. T’aint right lass.

    I read a very interesting article the other day about how the souls come and revitalise themselves with the energy of the food that you leave for them… I need to find it again…

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