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Burning Down the Year 

click to enlarge Coyote Run headlines the RiverFire Festival on November 3 at the Bridgewater in Kingston.
  • Coyote Run headlines the RiverFire Festival on November 3 at the Bridgewater in Kingston.

There are few who aren’t entranced by the magic and mystery of Halloween, with its fallen leaves, spooky pumpkins, and adorable trick-or-treaters. There are also few who understand the holiday’s origins, symbology, and traditions. Anne MacPherson knows, and she’s spent much of her time and energy educating the public about our Celtic heritage through numerous local events. MacPherson’s nonprofit Celebration of Celts, the largest Pan-Celtic festival in the Northeast, is dedicated to the history, heritage, music, and dance of the eight Celtic nations. She presents RiverFire, a celebration of Samhain, on November 3, with an ancient fire ceremony to herald in the Celtic new year.

“The Celts invented what we now call Halloween,” says MacPherson, “although in that pre-Christian era, it was a floating holiday that coincided with the three days of the ‘dark of the moon.’ This year our fire festival will take place on the last day of the three days of the New Year celebration.”

Samhain (pronounced So-wuhn), one of four traditional Celtic fire festivals, celebrates endings and beginnings; the other three are Oimelc (a quickening, winter), Beltane (fertility, spring), and Lughnassadh (harvest/victory, summer). These festivals were based upon the changes of the seasons, not actual calendar dates, and occur at opposite ends of the calendar in the northern and southern hemispheres. As the Celtic day began at sunset, so the Celtic new year began at the onset of winter, marking the end of the dying year and the rebirth of the new.
Samhain celebrates the sexual union of the Irish god of bounty, Dagdha, with Morrigan, the raven or bird of death. Their union symbolized the joining of the living world with the world of the dead, and many believed the door between those two worlds was open at this time. Hence, this was a time when the spirits of loved ones were honored with table settings for nourishment. The food was then distributed to the poor; if not offered, wrath would incur from the faerie realm. It’s no wonder, then, that children today disguise themselves as spooks and collect treats at our doors...or else.

The RiverFire celebration begins with a children’s costume party, pumpkin carving, and apple bobbing from 3 to 5pm. Ghost tales will be presented by Irish storyteller Kevin O’Hara from 6:30 to 7:30pm along with a dance dedicated to Saint Bridget. The highly acclaimed Celtic rock/folk band Coyote Run will host a dinner for 16 lucky folks ($20 in advance or $25 at the door), with all proceeds going to Celebration of Celts, then they’ll hit the stage at 8pm with their heart-racing rhythms and haunting melodies. Singer/songwriter Sarah Stockwell will open the show. Following the concert, Coyote Run will escort the audience to the courtyard where a strawman with a jack-o'-lantern head will be standing, awaiting the torch. They’ll lead a song and dance as participants place stones with their names on them around the strawman, after which the fire will be lit.

Advance purchase tickets for RiverFire are $12 for adults and $5 for children, and can be obtained online at or at Bridgewater Grill, 50 Abeel Street, Kingston before November 1. Tickets at the door are $15. Participants are encouraged to wear their finest Celtic attire. (518) 851-9670;

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