2. The Thinning of the Veil
The end of summer and the beginning of winter is, by its very nature, a transitional time. Past cultures believed that during this period, the veil between the material and spiritual worlds diminished. This thinning allowed those on either side of the invisible barrier passage between the two worlds. People could penetrate the veil and gain insight into the unknown. The spirits from beyond the veil, meanwhile, were free to explore the world beyond it.
These spirits were not the dead as some claim. Instead, they were the spirits of nature; in essence, ancient gods. At the end of October, people expected these deities to be much closer at hand than usual. But like all old gods, their character was nebulous. They could be helpful- but they could also do great harm. It very much depended on their mood and whims. These unpredictable attributes explain why these nature spirits are personified today as tricksy fairies, evil witches or demons.
Because the spirits were easily offended- and the after-effects of their ill will would linger even after the veil closed, it was essential for people to court them at the same time as protecting against their ire. This measure was especially important when facing the challenge of survival posed by the long winter ahead.
The fear of the malevolent aspect of these gods has translated down the ages into folk customs and beliefs that people widely observed in parts of Britain up until the nineteenth century. Each region had a particular personification. In Wales, for instance, Hwch Ddu Gwta personified the malevolent spirit of the season, a tailless black sow that caused mayhem, and chased anyone it found out abroad on Nos Calan Gaea.
Elsewhere, as in Ireland, the capricious nature of the gods was preserved in the Puca, a nature spirit/goblin who was good or bad, depending on mood. In the Shetland Irelands, Norse beliefs prevailed, and every measure was taken to protect the newly gathered harvest and cattle in the home pastures from marauding trolls.
These spiritual threats were probably ways of interpreting the natural dangers of winter. Tribes and families, therefore, did the best to win the spirits over, to protect the gathered harvest and their remaining livestock- and the people themselves. So one of the aspects of Summer’s End/Winter’s Beginning was the sacrifice- the sharing of some of the summer’s bounty with the spirits in the hope that this would satisfy.
So, the beasts culled in preparation for winter would become part communal feast- part collective sacrifice, as the community offered a portion to these gods. In later times, this translated into the traditions of leaving food on the threshold, such as in the Cambridge fens, where food was left outside the house to appease any witches abroad.