It is St. Martin’s Day,
we’ll eat chestnuts,
we’ll taste the wine.
This is the season of extremes. The land on fire and the land laid bare and all of it happens within a few short weeks, as if the earth blazes in glory before giving itself up to the quiet rest of winter. Last Sunday when I went for a walk, there were bands of colour laid on the sidewalk and against the dusting of snow: leaves of maple, elm, and mountain ash; golden, brilliant yellow, or scarlet-rust; here and there at sudden intervals; felled by the sudden freeze the night before. It is in these turnings, split seconds in Earth’s life, that the ancients believed we are opened to decision points.
In ancient times, All Hallows Eve marked the start of an eleven-day feast that ended with Martinmas on November 11th. Martinmas coincided with one of the old Celtic Quarter Days (quarter for “four”) positioned midway between equinox and solstice. During this fall festival, harvest fairs were held, tenants and servants hired or dismissed, livestock slaughtered, and new wine tasted. In Scotland they now call the old Quarter Days, Term Days. There, they are still turning points, marking when contracts and leases begin and end and when interest and rents are paid. Martinmas is still celebrated in parts of Western Europe with bonfires, parades, lanterns, and candy for the children.
I wonder if my fondness for this time of year is due, at least in part, to the discovery that my Great-Great-Aunt Agnes Whitson was married on Martinmas in 1835 in Swinton Parish, Scotland. Not long after, she, her new husband and her two brothers (or by some accounts cousins) sailed for Canada. In Scotland, they were tenant farmers. In Canada and Southern Ontario, they were settlers and landowners. I imagined them saying their goodbyes to family and friends and neighbours during the long harvest festival, of looking on during the hiring fairs, and once married, taking the road to the nearest port with ships to Canada, probably Glasgow. Our lives are the result of many such decisions, momentous and dramatic and everyday.
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with a decision of my own. I liken it to struggling to catch my breath (my spirit), tossing and turning in the night, wrestling with an angel and not wanting to let go without a blessing. First, on one side and then on the other, each side presenting a different choice in my mind, each a different road. The more I try to control the outcomes, the greater the struggle. When I can let go though, when in the night I can see through the windows of my nightmares and come to terms with who I am, I wake up at peace.
This time between fall and winter reminds me that decisions can be as dramatic and as sudden as that. And as peace-filled.