For most of us, Halloween is an excuse to freak ourselves out with horror movie marathons, get drunk, and dress in clothing we wouldn’t be seen dead in at any other time of year.
But in the small English town of Glastonbury, the festival has a meaning beyond “sexy” witch costumes and pumpkin-coloured punch.
On Glastonbury High Street sits The Goddess & The Green Man, a shop on a mission to reclaim Western pagan traditions and support the historic way of life.
“What we try to do here is bring back some of the old traditions, some of the things that have been lost,” explains Debs Summers-Cooper, Glastonbury resident of 16 years and the shop’s official Counter Enchantress. “If you take paganism as a big tree, there are loads of branches shooting off, some new and some old.”
Summers-Cooper has been pagan all her life and follows a hedge-witchery strand of the religion—“If you have to put a label on it,” she laughs.
In 2011, Glastonbury’s population was just under 9,000 and yet my host assures me it’s a hive of pagan activity.
“It’s a huge community here, people living and coming down regularly,” she says.
According to 2011 census data, there are over 50,000 pagans in England alone, practising rituals that date back centuries.
But I’m in Glastonbury to learn about Samhain, a pagan festival that marks the start of winter.
“It’s a celebration of the end of the final harvest,” explains Summers-Cooper, carrying out a basket brimming with ingredients. “‘Lammas’ or ‘Lughnasadh’ is the first of the harvests, where the wheat was taken from the fields.”
The second is Mabon, also the autumnal equinox, marking the harvest of the fruits and giving thanks.
“Then we have Samhain, the third harvest, this time of nuts and berries,” Summers-Cooper continues. “Traditionally, they’d be gathered in to keep those who went before us going through the winter.”
For Summers-Cooper, Samhain is the most important festival in the Wheel of the Year. It’s also just around the corner, celebrated on the same day as Halloween. As historian and pagan traditions expert Professor Ronald Hutton explains, the festival has two distinct characteristics.
“Firstly, it’s a joyous festival, because it’s a time of the year when there’s an abundance of food after the harvest and the slaughter of the livestock that you can’t feed through the winter,” he says. “It’s a time of plenty.”
But Samhain also has a darker side, as it marks the start of the year’s most uncomfortable season: winter. For pagans, this means “cold, privation, darkness, boredom, and claustrophobia.”
Pagans look to the future using divination and fortune telling to predict whether they’ll make it through the tough wintery months.
But what happens on the day itself?
“It all kicks off the night before, on October 30th, where we drink mead and bake the Samhain bread,” explains Summers-Cooper.
It seems a lot pagan rituals revolve around mead.
On the morning of October 31, while most of us are desperately throwing together costumes for a night of debauchery, Glastonbury’s pagan community climbs the Tor, a 518 foot (158 metre) hill on the edge of the town.
“It has a real mythic reputation, for want of a better word,” says Summers-Cooper. “There’s a labyrinth and a real energy up there.”
The Tor has been a site of spiritual importance since prehistoric times and was home to a timber church in the 11th century, later destroyed by an earthquake.
Come Samhain evening, after a day of storytelling on the Tor and the traditional collecting of nuts, it’s time for the feast.
“At Samhain, the veil becomes thin between worlds so it’s right that we honour our ancestors,” Summers-Cooper smiles.
The feast, including the mystical bread, is served at a dumb supper—a meal at which an extra place is set but left empty, reserved as a space for the Spirits.
“This represents people that you’ve known and lost, honouring your ancestors and giving thanks,” Summers-Cooper explains. “It’s part of this celebration.”
But more about the bread.
As Summers-Cooper unwraps the first of the three loaves she’s baked—each a variation on her traditional recipe passed down from her ancestors—I ask what else is needed for a Samhain feast.
“Before dinner, we have the doorstep ritual,” she explains, as a waft of rosemary fills the air from the first loaf now unwrapped on the table. “I put five lanterns out on the doorstep—one for each point of the pentagram. I put an apple, some Samhain bread, some mead, and some water down too.”
The pagan tradition is to then light the candles before giving thanks.
Then, finally, it’s time to eat.
The first loaf Summers-Cooper delicately unwraps is rye loaf with rosemary, explaining where the strong smell has been coming from.
“I use rosemary as it’s for remembrance,” Summers-Cooper explains, a pagan tradition that goes back generations.
Alongside the white flour and bicarbonate of soda used to make the bread, Summers-Cooper incorporates rye, caraway, and buttermilk—all ingredients associated with this time of year.
“If you can’t get hold of buttermilk, a carbonated cider works too,” she reassures me, as I grab a slice of the loaf.
Before eating the bread, it’s customary to take time to concentrate on your creation. Take the loaf, turn it three times in your hands, and recite: From the fields and through the stones, into fire, Samhain Bread, as the Wheel turns may all be fed. Goddess bless.
As I grab a slice of the next loaf—this one a fruit bread glazed with local honey and bulging with raisins and spice—I’m surprised at how much baking has gone into the evening. Can pagans really need all this for their celebrations?
“Oh, we only use a small amount for the ritual,” says Summers-Cooper. “The rest is to be gobbled up by your friends!”
All photos are by Michael Segalov