Samhain is upon us. Halloween. All Hallows Eve. The beginning of the Celtic New Year. The day out of time in the Celtic calendar. The night when the veils are thinnest. The cross-quarter holiday between autumn equinox and winter solstice. The opposite of Beltane or May Day. The day when the Pleiades shine the brightest at midnight.
Samhain is also the third harvest. We harvest meat on this holiday. Not a pleasant time, like harvesting the grains at Lammas (August 1) or the fruits at Mabon (autumn equinox). This harvest may have contributed to the gruesomeness of Halloween costumes and movies.
My grandmother tried to teach me how to be a responsible consumer of chicken and kill what I eat. She was unsuccessful.
It was an ordinary summer day. She didn’t pick Samhain to teach me, since she was a Christian, a German, and not familiar with Celtic lore. She asked me if I wanted chicken for lunch and I said yes. I was about five. Maybe older. I can’t really remember. She told me to go pick one out in the chicken coop. Not understanding what was to come, I went out and picked a pretty hen.
“Not that one. She’s a good layer,” grandmother said. “Which one looks good to eat?”
It was then it dawned on me. “You pick.”
“No, if you eat chicken, you have to learn how to kill them and clean them.”
I dawdled. I picked the scrawniest one.
“There’s no meat on that one. Let it put on some weight. Pick a plump one.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on, now. I haven’t got all day.”
Chicken picked, Grandmother made me catch it and told me to wring its neck. I tried, but I couldn’t make myself do it. She kept telling me to wring it harder. “Just snap it. Don’t make it suffer.”
I tried. My chicken ran off, head cocked funny.
“Now you’ve hurt it.” Grandmother grabbed it and snapped its neck quick. “You need to kill them quick. They shouldn’t suffer,” she instructed.
Then I had to pull off its feathers. But I just sat in the dirt and cried. Cried and cried, while she plucked and plucked. “See how pretty the feathers are? Don’t you like chicken?” I cried harder. I’d never realized the cost of liking chicken.
She cut up that bird and fried it, and I have to say it smelled great. Then she served lunch. She gave me vegetables and milk and bread. No chicken. As much as I begged, she wouldn’t give me any chicken. “If you can’t kill it, you don’t get to eat it.”
Then suddenly her shoulders slumped. “I’m tired of this,” she said.
I imagine she was. She’d taught every one of her nine children how to kill a chicken, and several of her grandchildren. I guess I was the last straw.
She gave me some chicken to eat. I ate it. Feeling guilty, but not enough to declare myself a vegetarian at that age. I did become a vegetarian for a long time. Then I became a lapsed vegetarian.
I’m still an irresponsible chicken consumer, but at least I buy cage free birds that have been fed organically. I have yet to kill a chicken myself.