The First Frost: Ancestor Worship and the Coming of Winter

Introduction

At the end of the harvest season when the food has been gathered and the cattle are returning home from their summer pastures, there is a noticeable shift in the season.  The nights become longer and the with the cold winds blowing in from the north.  The rains become colder, we start to see the return of the morning frost and the first snow falls.  It is the end of the warm days of summer and the first signs of winter have come.  Various European cultures mark this time of year differently.  For some, it is a final celebration at the end of the harvest season. For others, it is a solemn time where people are reminded of the coming of the darkness and the possibility of death in the coming winter.  At least it used to be……

With modern convinces, the dangers of winter are not as threating.  Grocery stores are open and easily accessible no matter what time of the year it is so starvation is not as much of a concern as it was for our ancestors.  Our homes are well heated (or can be, depending on how much you are trying to save on your electric bill) and the most inconvenient thing that comes up is that people have to pull out their fall and winter jackets, shovel their driveways, and go get their flue shot.  Our lives do not change much with the coming of winter anymore.  Despite this, there is still a feeling, an instinct, to huddle around the home fires and keep the dark and the cold at bay.

Beginning of Winter in the Upper Midwest

Fall and early winter in the Upper Midwest is a colorful transformation where the greens of summer give way to the oranges and yellows of fall, which then turn into the greys and white of winter. It is around early to mid-November when we finally have the nights become cold enough where there is a consistent frost on the ground in the morning and the fall rains turn into the first snow falls for the season. The earliest you will see frost in Wisconsin is early-mid October, but on average you will see it in late October into early November. [1] The coming of the morning frost is the first true indicator that winter is coming and among growers, it is important to have your plants covered before the night temperatures drop below freezing. Most farmers by this point have finished their fall harvest because the freezing temperatures causes the water in the plants to crystalize, which damages the plant tissue. Some plants fair better in freezing temperatures then others, including beets, cabbage, lettuce, kale, spinach, root vegetables such as carrots and onions, turnips, etc. Others, however, do not and farmers who have to make accommodations to changing weather patterns have come up with various ways to help protect their crops in a attempt to stretch out the harvest season as much as possible. [2]

As we look at the festivities that people have been participating in, specifically the various harvest festivals around the region, we see a shift once we get into October and people start looking forward to one of the more popular holidays in the United States, Halloween. Ghost, witches, and monsters become the overall theme of the season with shopping centers filled with decorations, costumes, and candy for the kids. Unfortunately, once Halloween is over, the local stores switch gears practically overnight and the Christmas decorations start to come out of the woodwork (much to the frustration of many people who like to point out that we haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet). The festivities around Halloween first made their way over the the Americas in the early 1800s with Irish immigrants as a harvest festival that included public play parties, music, dancing, ghost stories, and fortune telling. As the Americas started to become flooded with Irish immigrants because of the Irish Potato Famine, the increase in the Irish population, as well as efforts to make the holiday more family and community friendly, helped popularize Halloween across the nation. [3] One thing that is unique regarding Halloween in the Upper Midwest is that that is the time of year the the star cluster known as the Pleiades comes into the eastern sky. The Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, is known within various mythologies around the world and the mythologies associated with them reflect what was happening that time of year when they appear in the sky. For example, in Greek mythology the Pleiades were the seven daughters of the titans Atlas and Pleione, who while running from the hunter Orion, were turned into doves and sent into the heavens by Zeus. Because of their parentage, they have strong associations with all things water and sea navigation. With the Egyptians, the Pleiades were revered as one of the forms of the Egyptian goddess Isis and in ancient Persia, the date in which they reached their highest midnight ascendancy was marked with ceremony. Various other cultures around the world have their own stories with the Pleiades, but in the Upper Midwest, they are associated with witchcraft, Halloween, and the first signs of winter. [4,5]

As for Thanksgiving, which always falls on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States, this holiday was originally a New England harvest festival that was celebrated at the end of the harvest season when all the crops were in their winter storage by British immigrants. It was made a federal holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln as part of the efforts to help promote unity in the United States after the Civil War. However, due to many of the customs around Thanksgiving being rooted in Protestant religious services and the South’s reluctance to adopt a New England festival, Thanksgiving seemed to cause more controversy then unity. It wasn’t until the mid 1900s, when the United States came together during World War II and many of the customs around Thanksgiving were secularized that any sense of controversy faded away. [6]

European Traditions

Based on the research I have done for this article series, the harvest season and the celebrations around it are some of the most important and diverse seasonal festivals out of the year. The community comes together in celebration, but it also takes stock as to the resources they have available through the winter season. If the stocks are too low, then the community risks famine through the winter and the possibility of death of members within the community becomes a reality. This reality by it’s nature makes this time of year a liminal time and this sense of liminality is apparent in the seasonal festivals that we see in Europe around this time of year. Given the popularity of Halloween in the United States and in the Upper Midwest, lets start with the Irish and Scottish festivals of Samhainn. Samhainn (pronounced SOW-ween) literally means summers end and it marks the official end of the summer season in Ireland and Scotland when traditionally the cattle herds would arrive at their winter homes from their summer pastures. In addition to this, Samhainn is also marked with a sense of danger because according to Irish and Scottish lore, Samhainn (as well as Bealltainn and Hogmanay) are the times of the year when the mounds (fairy mounds) would open and the Aos Sí (people of the mounds) would leave their dwellings to go visit each other with celebrations, feasting and merrymaking. In addition to this, there would also be groups of the Aos Sí who would travel the countryside for their own amusement and entertainment. Because of this, going out this time of year could be dangerous because you might end up being a victim of these roving bands (there are various stories from Ireland about people who fell victim to the fairy host) or they might kidnap you and take you back to their mounds, never to be seen again. [7, 8]

Today, Samhainn is celebrated on November 1st and the traditional festivities around Samhainn, like Bealltainn, include the lighting of the bonfires (called Samhnagan in Scotland) at dusk for protective qualities against bad luck and baneful Otherworldly forces associated with the night. The community would build the bonfire at a high location in relation to the local community and these fires would be built by the community, using anything combustible they had available. In some of the villages, the boys would go house-to-house and ask for a brick of peat from each household to add to the village fire and in more rural communities, each farmstead would build their own fire, which was built in much of the same manner as the fires in the villages. After the fires were finished and burned down, the ashes would be collected and spread on the fields and around boundaries of property to ensure the fertility of the land and the people, as well as to ward off evil influences. In addition to this, in some areas torches would also be lit from the community bonfire and the torches would be paraded around people’s property to extend the power of the fire to protect the farmsteads, the cattle, and the people. It seems that this practice was later replaced with the tradition of the Jack-o-Lantern when the lighting of the community fire started to die out. Various other protective charms would be placed on homes and with cattle this time of year such as wood crosses (rowan twigs with red string in Scotland) and various methods of divination would be practiced to see who would die (if anyone) during the winter months. Once all the rituals were finished, the people would gather in their homes for feasting and merriment. [9]

Looking at Welsh traditions around this time of year, they appear to be a hybrid of festivities, similar to traditional Irish and the Scottish festivities as well as commercialized celebrations around Halloween. Known as Calan Gaeaf (pronounced Kah-Lann Gay-Av; the night before is known as Nos Calan Gaeaf: pronounced nOSS Kah-Lann Gay-Av) which means winter start or the beginning of winter, Calan Gaeaf is celebrated on November 1st and traditionally included the lighting of bonfires, protection from the spirits of the Otherworld, and practices of divination. Like the Irish and the Scots, the Welsh believed that beings of the Otherworld would roam the land this time of year. The lord of Annwfn, Gwyn ap Nudd, would lead the Welsh equivalent of a “wild hunt” across the countryside with his otherworldly hunting hounds. Also a being called Ladi Wen (White Lady) is said to be abroad on Galan Gaeaf. Ladi Wen is believed by some to be Ceridwen, mother of Afagddu, who keeps the cauldron of inspiration and is believed to be associated with the “winter hag” character in various Celtic mythologies. Because of the liminal nature of this time of year, bonfires would be lit for purification and protection of the communities and like with the Irish, things would be thrown into the fires (bread and such) for uses of divination. People would go home after the rituals and events at the bonfires were finished for celebrations and merriment. Despite many of these traditional festivities, most modern Welsh celebrate what is more associated with modern Halloween with Jack-O’-Lanterns, kids in costumes, and trick-or-treating, but elements of the older traditions seem to pop up in various locations throughout Wales. [10, 11]

As we move towards the mainland of the continent, we see various other regional and cultural celebrations and festivities around this time of year. Among the Norse and Germanic people, this time of year is marked with the festival of Vetrnætr (Winternights), which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the month of Gormánuður (slaughter month) where animals wer butchered and preserved for storage for the upcoming winter season. This holiday is attested in several of the sagas along with Jólablót (Midwinter) and Sigrblót, which was celebrated at the beginning of the summer season (late March to early April). It is not clear how the ancient Norse and German tribes celebrated Vetrnætr and it appears to have had a wide variety of customs and rituals that were localized (similar to what we see with other harvest festivals throughout Europe, explained here). What we can tell from the ancient sagas is that the holiday seemed to have been celebrated after the 26th week after the beginning of summer (so between the 19th and the 26th of October in modern calendars) and included honoring the álfar (elves), the dísir (female ancestors who controlled fate), Freyr (who is lord of the álfar) and Óðinn. Based on the sagas, the holiday did seem to include the offering of ale to the spirits and most of the sagas also seem to reference the dísir in relation to Vetrnætr quite often, even to the point were Vetrnætr is referred to as Dísablót (Dísir feast) in some of the sagas. [12]

As we move further south towards the Mediterranean regions, specifically among the Greeks and the Romans, we find festivals in late October and November to have different focuses then what we see further north. In Rome, the end of October and November marked the end of the campaign season and all the solders who were gone for the summer months had returned home. Because of this, Rome had various festivals and public celebrations emphasizing the independent sovereignty of Rome in the world and many of the celebrations were in honor of Jupiter, Mars, and Fortuna. Festivals such as Ludi Plebeii (The Plebeian Games), which is believed to have been established in 220 BCE and was celebrated between November 4th through 17th, was a celebration of political freedom and liberty from the reign of the older monarchies and hereditary determined rulership that was predominant during the regal period before the establishment of the Roman Republic. Many of these festivities would include carnivals, circuses, feasting, and celebrations. [13] In Greece, festivals in October and November involve the end of the harvest season such as Oschophoria (ὠσχοφόρια: festival of wine in honor of Dionysus) and Pyanopsia (Πυανόψια: a thanksgiving feast dedicated to Apollo), but by the month of Pyanepsiōn (Πυανεψιών: late October-early November) we see a shift away from the harvest. The most famous and wide spread festival around this time of year is Thesmophoria (Θεσμοφόρια), which is in dedication to Demeter and Persephone. This festival was to mark the end of the harvest season and promote fertility, both human and agricultural. This festival was planned, facilitated, and celebrated by the free women among the Greek city-states and some evidence shows that Thesmophoria may have been celebrated at different times in different areas, but always in association with the harvest season. [14] We also have celebrations such as Apaturia (Ἀπατούρια: means “common relationship”) which was an annual celebration among various city-states in Greece. With Apaturia, various city-states would gather to honor their community bonds and make scarifies to the gods including Zeus, Athena, and Hercules. The specifics of how these festivals were celebrated varied from region to region, but we do know from historical documents that during these festivals, children who had been born since the last Apaturia would be presented to their fathers in public which officially marking them as part of that father’s household and the various families would discuss local affairs. Above all things, this was a festival marking the connection between communities and many of the origin stories of these festivities show the ancestral bonds between the various city-states. [15]

History of All Saints Day and Halloween

For as much as I would like to just focus on the ancient pagan, as well as early to modern folk traditions, it is important to talk about how festivities associated around this time of year were co-opted by the later Christian traditions and the history regarding these festivities, because they do shape how modern Pagans look at Halloween.

The origins of All Saints Day within Christianity appear to have been observed during various times of the year depending on the region the celebrations took place, but then later established upon a specific date. In Rome, these observances seem to have originally been in the spring, specifically around May 13th according to documentation between the 4th and 7th centuries. During the reign of Pope Gregory III (731-741), Pope Gregory dedicated an oratory in St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of all the saints on November 1 and the date for All Saint’s Day officially changed to November 1st by decree of the Pope. The reason, and probably the motivation, for the date dedications (both in May and in November) is that in the early days of the Christian church, the Christian community wanted to dedicate a date in honor of Christian martyrs who they saw as heroes against their polytheistic rivals and they claimed that there were so many of them that they could not have a independent day for each of them, so they had to pick one day to honor all of them….. The elevation of these individuals was quite clearly part of the anti-pagan propaganda campaign instigated by the Christian church to convert the masses to their new religious tradition and to validate the sense of righteousness in their Evangelical efforts. Over the centuries, local regional customs developed around this holiday, some of which seem to have had some association and inspiration from local native traditions, but all of these are expressed through a Christian lenses and interpretation and all of them focused on honoring the faithful dead. [16]

The name Halloween is in reference to the night before All Saints Day (October 31st) and was originally referred to as All Hallows Eve. The earliest evidence of the celebration of All Hallows Eve appears in the 16th century. The word “hallows” comes from the old English word halgian which refers to a holy person or a saint. The “-een” part of the name is an contraction of eve, which is in reference to the night before an event. Later in the 1800s, All Hallows Eve was further contracted into Halloween by the Scots, and from there the revised name spread across the globe. [17]

Reflections and Speculations

So looking at seasonal festivals this time of year among Europeans civilizations, we see a distinct difference between the more northern rural regions of Europe and the more urban regions in the Mediterranean. In the northern regions, where the nights become long (especially in the most northern parts of Scandinavia) and the potential of death in the winter season is greater then what we see further south, we see more of an emphasis on the coming darkness and death. We do see some of this with Thesmophoria and fertility festivals with the Greeks, but the focus of Thesmophoria is to ensure the continued fertility of the community in the next year, not an acknowledgment of the reality of the potential of death due to harsh weather conditions. We also see more of an emphasis on community fellowship among the Mediterranean regions, but given that the campaign season is over and the community has come back together at this point, celebrations with the whole community makes sense. It also makes sense that they would not have such the focus on the cold of winter and the possibility of death from the cold since the Mediterranean region south of the Alps sees little to no snow. It would be like people in Florida in the United States worrying about the cold of winter when the coldest they get on average is in the 50s in January. [18] It just would not be part of the culture. So there would be a clear delineation between northern Europe and southern Europe. Given that I live in the Upper Midwest, we clearly have harsh winters, which depending on where you live can be amplified by lake effect by the Great Lakes. Because of this, I am going to focus on Northern European traditions more then southern in my review.

When we look at traditions in the British Isles and the German/Scandinavian regions, we see some clear parallels. The focus on the honored dead (specifically honored matrons/magic workers), the folk of the Otherworld, and practices of divination is clearly apparent. As a Gaulish Polytheist, I will address each one in part and try to show any information from the Gauls that would apply:

  • Traditions of the Honored Dead: In relation to the honored dead, we see this with the Norse/Germanic traditions and the Disir. The Disir (pronounced DEE-sir; Old Saxon idisi) are a group of honored female spirits that may or may not have been ancestors (lore is ambiguous in this). What we know about the Disir is that they appear to have been portrayed as tutelary/guardian spirits of a particular person, group, or location and are described at times as being warlike, while at other times nourishing and protective. In many cases, they are portrayed as an ancestor, but not always and they appear to have parallels to the álfar. Depending on the region they are honored, they also seem to have parallels with the Gaulish Matronae, who were seen as divine female ancestors of the Gaulish tribes (each tribe would have their own set of Matrons who looked after the tribe and their lands) who also seemed to have been portrayed as tutelary/guardian spirits/ancestors who were connected with fate, luck, and protection. [19]
  • Traditions of the Otherfolk: The one thing that is clear that was honored at this time of year is the Otherfolk. In Ireland, the Aos Sí would travel from their mounds and celebrate and roving spirits would cause mischief, while in the Norse regions, Freyr, lord of the álfar, and the álfar were honored, although the details are not clear on the specifics. Óðinn was also honored, but given that he was head of the Aesir, that might have been something done in respect to his position as head of the pantheon. I do know that many people today associate the Wild Hunt to this time of year, as mentioned earlier with the Welsh material and the roving bands of Aos Sí in Ireland, and many people, especially those of Norse affiliation, feel that Óðinn heads up the hunt. What I have found interesting about the Wild Hunt in my research is that there is no specifically referenced evidence of it anywhere in Europe prior to the 15th century and all the folklore we have regarding it comes after that time period. The earliest information we do have regarding the Wild Hunt is that it was made up of knights who were not pure enough to go to the Christian Heaven because of their involvement with war, but also not diabolical enough to descend down to the Christian Hell either. Not being able to go to either, they would wander and ride together across the heavens taking up others who had similar a fate. [20] As a Polytheist who sees the Afterlife as a multifaced existence, the idea of a wandering group of specters seems perfectly fine. I actually had a experience with a spectral group like this when I was younger while a storm raged through the area I grew up and we spent a week cleaning up the mess. I feel that much of the American folklore about ghost riders in the sky (made popular by both the band The Doors and Johnny Cash in their music) expresses this idea and I would not be surprised if there were multiple spectral groups like this across the globe, whom Óðinn, Gwyn ap Nudd, and others would ride with depending on the region the riders are in. In regards to Gaulish Polytheism and the Otherfolk, referred to as the Antumnatis in reconstructed Gaulish, there are a few beings that are mentioned that work into possible folklore. One is the Dusios, a otherworldly being that is a shapeshifter (usually takes the form of a satyr) that can be a benefit or a hindrance to people who interact with it. These beings are usually referred to as being caretakers of the fertility of the fields and a benefit to those who respect the land. They may also be ancestors who have taken up the position of dispensing protection, luck, and prosperity to the community. Given that the fertility of the earth seems to have withdrawn into the earth, protection or appeasing the Dusios may be something that happened around this time of year. [21] As for the Wild Hunt, there has been some speculation among the Gaulish Polytheistic community as to who would be associated with this. Eponâ’s name has come up, as well as Lugus, but nothing conclusive.
  • Traditions of Fortune Telling and Divination: When looking at traditional folklore, there are numerous examples of various methods of divination performed around this time of year. Most of it was to see who would survive the winter and whether young maidens would find future husbands. Divination is one of those things that we know was popular in ancient times. Various methods of divination were used throughout the Classical World and even after the official adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, divination was one of the main reasons that the Christian authorities would continue persecutions of magical practitioners through the Early Modern Era, despite the fact that many of the civil authorities and the common people saw it as harmless. Despite that, there are various regional variations regarding divination practices, especially this time of year. For example in Scotland, practices like reading kale stalks, three luggies, and a form of divination called the cutty stool, where one would sit at a cross road at midnight on Samhainn to see who would die in the next year. [22] Most of the information regarding divination and the ancient Gauls involved the reading of animal entrails when ritual feast were performed by priests and Druids, observing celestial events, incubation style trance to commune with the spirits and the dead, as well as other attested methods. none of these are stated to happen specifically this time of year. However, if you participate in divination with the help of spirits, these spirits would be called Suleuiâs (means good guides) and calling on them to assist is never a bad idea.
The Telling of a Story……..

I know that my stories have been shrinking with each one of these articles, but I have been noticing that the stories, even though they are important in the cultivation of my bardic abilities, need to express our local community and especially given the obvious diversity of harvest festivals, stream lining the stories seem to make the most sense. Perhaps at some point I will expand on them more. Until then………

With Taranis in his halls in the south, the goddess of the land and the Father of Waters begin their decent into the Underworld.  Grandmother Winter has arrived from her halls in the north, spreading the cold of winter with her breath and the frost with her powerful staff.  As she walks, the beast of winter start to arrive from their lairs in the underworld and they begin to roam the wild landscape, devouring what they can.  To protect themselves from the cold ahead, the people light mighty fires and call upon the power from the heavens, delivered to the people by Brigandu long ago and who lives within the sacred flames.  They call upon the protection of the gods and their ancestors from the coming darkness and cold.........
Resources
  1. Editor. “First and last Freeze/frost dates for Madison, WI, United States” Dave’s Garden: https://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/index.php?q=53716#b
  2. Pequea. “Protecting your Crops from Frost: 6 Tips and Tricks” Pequea: A Skibo Company: https://www.pequea.com/protecting-your-crops-from-frost-6-tips-and-tricks/
  3. Editors. “Halloween 2021” History: https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween#section_4
  4. Berman, Bob. “PLEIADES: THE SEVEN SISTER STARS ON HALLOWEEN” The Old Farmers Almanac, 2021: https://www.almanac.com/seven-sisters-halloween
  5. Gibson, Steven. “Pleiades Mythology” The Pleiades: https://www.naic.edu/~gibson/pleiades/pleiades_myth.html
  6. Silverman, David. “Thanksgiving Day” Britannica: The World Standard in Knowledge since 1768: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Thanksgiving-Day
  7. Loughlin, Annie. “Samhainn” Tairis: A Gaelic Polytheist Website: http://www.tairis.co.uk/festivals/samhainn/
  8. Morus-Baird, Gwilym. “The Celtic Otherworld?” YouTube; uploaded by Celtic Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5WiifupG-4
  9. Loughlin, Annie. “Samhainn” Tairis: A Gaelic Polytheist Website: http://www.tairis.co.uk/festivals/samhainn/
  10. Editor. “Nos Galan Gaeaf – 31st October” Dun Brython: http://www.dunbrython.org/nos-galan-gaeaf.html
  11. Starling, Mhara. “Calan Gaeaf | The Welsh Halloween or Samhain | Welsh Witchcraft, Paganism and Spirituality” You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kb6UZ7bIEaU
  12. Editor. “Vetrnætr” Forn Kunskap: Expanding Northern Knowledge: https://fornkunskap.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/vetrnaetr/
  13. Editor. “Ludi Plebeii” Imperium Romanum: https://imperiumromanum.pl/en/roman-religion/roman-feasts/ludi-plebeii/
  14. Schmitz, Leonhard. “Thesmophoria” University of Chicago LacusCurtius Educational Resource: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Thesmophoria.html
  15. Parker, Robert. “Apaturia” Oxford Classical Dictionary: https://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-570
  16. Editor. “What are the origins of All Saints Day and All Souls Day? Are these linked with paganism and Halloween?” Catholic Strait Answers: https://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-are-the-origins-of-all-saints-day-and-all-souls-day-are-these-linked-with-paganism-and-halloween/
  17. Ticak, Marko. “Where Does Halloween Come From?” Grammarly Blog: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/halloween-etymology/
  18. Osborn, Liz. “Average Temperature in Florida By Month” Current Results: Weather and Science Facts: https://www.currentresults.com/Weather/Florida/average-florida-temperatures-by-month.php
  19. McCoy, Daniel. “DISIR” Norse Mythology for Smart People: https://norse-mythology.org/disir/
  20. Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018
  21. Taranicnos, Artocatos. “The Dusioi” Bessus Nouiogalation: https://nouiogalatis.org/2020/06/21/the-dusioi/
  22. Scott. “SAMHUINN – HALLOWEEN, WINTERS START, GUISING, DIVINATION AND FIRES” Cailleach’s Herbarium: Exploring Lost Scottish Folk Customs, Practices, Traditions, and Lore: https://cailleachs-herbarium.com/2016/10/samhuinn-halloween-winters-start-guising-divination-and-fires/
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2 thoughts on “The First Frost: Ancestor Worship and the Coming of Winter

  1. Pingback: The First Frost: Ancestor Worship and the Coming of Winter – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. Pingback: The First Frost: Ancestor Worship and the Coming of Winter — Nemeton Dumnonantu | Vermont Folk Troth

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