Harvest’s End

Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” a Christian descendant of the Celtic feast day Samhain (pronounced, in that mysterious way of Gaelic, “SOW-in”). Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark half” of the Celtic calendar.

Square in a circle

The pagan Celtic year was divided into quarters and these Bronze Age people apparently thought of their spiritual dimension as a circle in a square, with the world of the living being the square and the spirit world the circle around it. At the corners of the square the distance between the realms of the living and the dead were “thinnest.”

Each of these corners was exactly half way between a solstice and an equinox. The winter and summer solstices are, respectively the shortest and longest days of the year, something a Bronze Age person could observe and measure directly. Likewise the equinoxes are 24-hour periods during which day and night are of equal length, also something that can be measured by people with clocks.

Bronze Age farmers in northern Europe paid close attention to this solar cycle and the attendant warmth that defined their growing season. Most of the Bronze age (after 2700 BCE) was marked by a climate warmer than the present day—grapes were grown in the British Isles and Scandinavia—making farming relatively easy and causing the population to rise to higher densities than during the Stone Age. The climate deteriorated after 850 BCE and declined further after 650 BCE.

Feast days included rituals to propitiate gods that ostensibly had some say over how the harvest season would go. Earlier Europeans noticed that the seasonal warmth lagged the solar cycle significantly. Even most modern people are aware that although the summer solstice is on June 21, the warmest days of the summer do not arrive until August. It is perhaps this fact that caused the pagan Celts to place their feast days exactly half way between the solstices and equinoxes. And because these days represents crests, troughs and turning points in the seasons they decided that the spirits must be closer and occasionally even in our realm.

“The Corn Harvest” (Bruegel the Elder)

Lughnasa, which was (and, less essentially, is) celebrated during the first few days of August, marks the start of the harvest season, and Samhain, bridging the last days of October and first few days of November, marks the end. Of course, the present (more or less Gregorian) calendar did not assume its present form until sometime in the Middle Ages. The Romans after the first century BCE used a Julian calendar with 12 months. This was adopted by the Celts (although the names of the months were changed), but before that time, the feast days had not likely been thought of as being associated with months per se. Rather, they were simply part of the growing season.

Beltane, the beginning of the “light half” of the year, has come down to us as “May Day.” It is associated with the yearly inception of fertility upon the land and among the people. The May pole is fertility rite. Secular humanists copied the time-honored Christian tradition of co-opting pagan holidays for their own purposes when they established “labor day” on May Day through out Europe (although the tradition surprisingly began in Australia in 1856) by 1886.

Haymarket riot

A workers’ riot at Haymarket in Chicago in 1886 caused the United States to move its Labor Day to the first weekend in September, which, while it is the beginning of the school year in the northern United States, was several weeks into the school year when the South was predominantly agrarian, because the harvest season comes earlier and ends earlier there. Kids could therefore return to school in August, as they were no longer needed on the farm to bring in the crops.

Perhaps the most unsung Celtic feast day is Imbolc, which arrives in early February, the proverbial “dead” of winter. The end of the harvest at Samhain is a fond memory and the beginning of the growing season at Beltane is a light at the end of a dark tunnel. The shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice, is pretty darned short in the British Isles and Scandinavia. So by early February the days have been getting longer for almost six weeks, but it is still pretty dark and cold.

St. Brigid’s Cross at Candlemas

Hence the tradition of “Groundhog Day.” The earliest reference in the United States is from 1841 in Pennsylvania where it is associated with Candlemas (which celebrates an event in the infancy of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke). Marmota monax, is a New World animal, so if the North American tradition of evaluating the behavior of a small, groggy furred animal emerging from a burrow has any Old World roots, it would have to be a different mammal. A badger? A stoat? In any case, if the beast sees his shadow, then we’ll have six more weeks of winter. In other words, Beltane won’t come early.

On Halloween people dress in costume, pretending to be “not themselves” with the more traditional costumes having supernatural overtones as per the Celtic idea of the closeness of the spirit realm on this day. But the vestiges of the harvest holiday survive in odd artifacts like carved pumpkins, candy corn and candied apples.


Fit To Be Dried

One of the memories that I have from childhood and adolescence is climbing up into the second floor of our barn—it didn’t have a real loft—and seeing bunches of flowers hanging upside down along wires stretched between the roof beams. At some point in the 1970s my mother began growing flowers that were grown to be dried, as opposed to be cut and displayed fresh.

Statice (Limonium sinuatum)

I think that she had joined a garden club and had gotten into flower arranging. In the absence of a greenhouse to grow fresh flowers through the winter, one resorted to arranging dried flowers. One of the most popular species is statice (Limomium sinuatum) or “sea lavender,” which has small flowers surrounded by colorful bracts. When dried the crepe paper-like bracts persist and largely hold their color. Statice is relatively easy to grow, begins flower in the spring and keeps flowering until the frost kills it, and can be grown as an annual in Zones 2 through 7.

Other popular species that dry well include baby’s breath (Gypsophila), cockscomb (Celosia), amaranth (Amaranthus), salvia (Salvia), and goldenrod (Solidago). The simplest way to dry all of these is to hang them upside down in a dry, dark, well-ventilated place like my mother did. Humid places should be avoided, as the plants are likely to get moldy.

Dried goldenrod and hydrangea
Dried goldenrod and hydrangea

If you have taken a botany course, then you are perhaps already aware of pressing flowers in order to preserve them for a herbarium collection. Nearly any flower can be dried in this manner, although many do not retain much color and all are, of course, flattened. Alternating layers of flowers and newsprint are stacked between two boards and weighted down with a heavy object. It takes about a month to dry them in this manner.

Any plant can also be dried by submerging it in two parts water and one part glycerine (antifreeze actually works). Fresh flowers are submerged for two or three weeks and then hung upside down to drive the glycerine to the extremities of the vegetation.

Silica gel will also dehydrate flowers. Packets of this substance are often found in packages that have been shipped long distance. It can be bought at most garden stores. Flowers must be buried in a closed container. Flowers dried by silica gel may rehydrate and wilt if they are not kept in a closed container after initial drying.

Any flower that is cut to be dried should be picked later in the day when the dew has evaporated from it. They should be bound together in bunch with a rubber band and placed in a cool, dark place immediately. It is best to pick flowers before they are fully open, as they will continue to mature after they are cut and before they are fully dried.

Flowers fade because the pigments in them oxidize in the presence of light and water. Drying them in the dark prevents oxidation and thus preserves the color. Subsequent fading of the color in the dried flower is caused by partial rehydration from moisture in the air, which allows the oxidation reaction to go forward.

Dried hydrangeas
Dried hydrangeas

Hydrangeas (also known as hortensia) are woody plants that produce beautiful dried blooms. Hydrangea flowers should be allowed to partially dry while still on the shrub. They are initially green, but as they dry, they turn blue (acidic soils) pink, or purple (alkaline soils).

Hydrangea flowers are either “mopheads” or “lacecaps”. The former are round panicles and the latter are flatter corymbs. Often the lacecap flower heads will have smaller, radially symmetrical blooms at the center and larger sterile asymmetrical bracts around the perimeter.

Hydrangeas do not need to be hung upside down to dry. They will dry even if they are put in a vase filled with water.å