Samhain has always been one of my favorite Sabats, the air is chilly and you can smell the burning of wood from the seasons first fires floating from their hearths and wafting through the crisp night air. It is time for us for remember and honor those who have passed, celebrate our successes from the past year, plan for the new year and prepare for the long winter and dark nights ahead of us until the Sun God is reborn again during the Winter Solstice.
My hope for this blog is not only that I entertain you but also that I am able to educate you on a variety of different topics, traditions and holidays that I may have more of or a different perspective on. I figured – well, heck, what better Sabat to start on than Halloween!
HISTORY AND LORE
Before we get into the ritual/observance aspects of the holiday, let’s discuss it’s history first. Samhain (pronounced sow-ween or sow-win and translated meaning “summers end”) is the Witches New Year and one of the four greater Sabats; you may know it by another name like Halloween, Day of the Dead, Spirits Night, Hallows Night, or All Hallows Eve. In the northern hemisphere, many Witches celebrate Samhain from dusk on October 31st through dusk on November 1st though many modern witches in the US and Canada just stick with the Oct 31st date.
During the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion throughout Europe, Samhain was given new Christian names and guises to make the religious conversion of early Pagans easier. “All Saints’ Day” on November 1st was created to commemorate Christian saints and martyrs. It is followed thereafter by “All Souls’ Day” which is celebrated on November 2ed and was created as a time to honor or to pray for the souls of the dead.
Shortly after the migration of Christian Spaniards to Mexico, the indigenous customs honoring the dead mixed with the Roman Catholic customs and gave birth to the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, which is celebrated in early November throughout many towns and cities in Mexico today.
Although occurring at the same time of year (even the same day depending on who you ask) and having roots in end-of-harvest celebrations, Halloween and Samhain are in fact two separate holidays that differ considerably in focus and in practice.
In contemporary America, Halloween has evolved to be both a family-oriented children’s holiday as well as an occasion for those of all ages to creatively express themselves and engage in play in the realm of make-believe and fantasy through costumes, trick-or-treating, storytelling, play-acting, pranks, horror movies, haunted houses, and parties.
SAMHAIN AND DEATH
Samhain is the Celtic New Year, and the highest holy day for Witches. Samhain signifying the end of the yearly cycle begins the inauguration of Winter, it is our final opportunity to harvest and to dry herbs for winter storage. With so much of this holiday revolving around the end of things, it comes as no surprise that death is an integral part of the Sabat. Vegetation dies back with the first frosts, trees shed the last of their leafs, and literally, death is in the air.
This helps us understand the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the Dead. For those who have lost loved ones in the past year, Samhain rituals can be an opportunity to bring closure to grieving.
RITUAL AND OBSERVANCE
Samhain is not just a time of death and endings, it is also a time of new beginnings. This is a good point in the year for personal reflection, (the death of the old self is a common theme for the holiday) and for recognizing our flaws and failures while also creating methods for rectifying them in the coming year.
In many Celtic countries the Sabat was observed by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for wandering spirits. Today many practitioners still carry out this tradition, more commonly known as “Hecate Suppers”.
Other traditions include leaving a single candle lit and left in the window to help guide the spirits of ancestors and loved ones home, extra chairs are set at the table and around the hearth for any spirits visiting the family, and turnips (these days we use pumpkins) were hollowed out and carved to look like protective spirits and scare away fairies and evil beings.
We still observe many of these old traditions today, and in modern times we have even created a few of our own! There is no wrong way to participate in this Sabat but here are of few of my personal favorites.
- Nature Walk. Take a meditative walk in a natural area near your home. Observe and contemplate the colors, aromas, sounds, and other sensations of the season. Experience yourself as part of the Circle of Life and reflect on death and rebirth as being an important part of Nature. If the location you visit permits, gather some natural objects and upon your return use them to adorn your home.
- Seasonal Imagery. Decorate your home with Samhain seasonal symbols and the colors of orange and black. Place an Autumnal wreath on your front door. Create displays with pumpkins, cornstalks, gourds, acorns, and apples.
- Ancestors Altar. Gather photographs, heirlooms, and other mementos of deceased family, friends, and companion creatures. Arrange them on a table, dresser, or other surface, along with several votive candles. Kindle the candles in their memory as you call out their names and express well wishes. Thank them for being part of your life. Sit quietly and pay attention to what you experience. Note any messages you receive in your journal. This Ancestors Altar can be created just for Samhain or kept year round.
- Feast of the Dead. Prepare a Hecate Supper and place it on your porch or doorstep. Alternatively, include a place setting at your table for spirits visiting home, add an offering of a bit of each beverage being consumed to the cup at that place setting, and to the plate, add a bit of each food served. Invite your ancestors and other deceased loved ones to come and dine with you, after the feast, place the contents of the plate and cup for the Dead outdoors in a natural location as an offering.
- Cemetery Visit. Visit and tend the gravesite of a loved one at a cemetery. Call to mind memories and consider ways the loved one continues to live on within you.
- Reflections. Reflect on you and your life over the past year. Review journals, planners, photographs, blogs, and other notations you have created during the past year. Consider how you have grown, accomplishments, challenges, adventures, travels, and learnings. Meditate. Journal about your year in review, your meditation, and your reflections.
- Renovate. Select an area of your home or life as a focus. Examine it. Re-organize it. Release what is no longer needed. Create a better pattern. Celebrate renewal and transformation.
- Bonfire Magic. Kindle a bonfire outdoors when possible or kindle flames in a fireplace or a small cauldron. Write down an outmoded habit that you wish to end and cast it into the Samhain flames as you imagine release. Imagine yourself adopting a new, healthier way of being as you move around the fire clockwise.
- Divine Invocations. Honor and call upon the Divine in one or more Sacred Forms associated with Samhain, such as the Crone Goddess and Horned God of Nature. Invite Them to aid you in your remembrance of the Dead and in your understanding of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If you have lost loved ones in the past year, ask these Divine Ones to comfort and support you.
SYMBOLS: Black cats, Pumpkins, Bats, Owls, Scarecrows, Brooms, Keys
GODDESSES: All Crone Goddesses, Cerridwen, Hecate, Hel, Oya, the Morrigan, Lilith, Kali, Ishtar, Arianrhod, Rhiannon, Tlazoteotl, Nephthys, Persephone, Beansidhe (Banshee), Inanna, Baba Yaga, Isis, Pomona and Cailleach Beara (Brigid’s crone aspect)
GODS: Osiris, the Horned God, Herne the Hunter, Cernunnos, Anubis, Odin, Bran, Death Gods
INCENSE: Clove, sandalwood, mint, cinnamon, and sage.
CANDLES: Black, orange, brown, beeswax, white.
TOOLS: Besom, to sweep out the old year and any negativity it had. Cauldron, for transformation.
PLANTS: Pumpkin, apple, grain, pomegranate, mugwort, wormwood, acorn, oak leaf, gourds, root vegetables
STONE: Obsidian, carnelian, onyx, smoky quartz, jet, bloodstone.
ALTAR DECORATIONS: Autumn leaves, fall flowers, pomegranates, apples, pumpkins, ears of corn, sprays of grain, corn dollies, gourds, nuts, seeds, acorns, chestnuts and images of ancestors are all appropriate. Use whatever is in season where you live.
FOOD: Gingerbread, freshly roasted nuts, pumpkin pie, nut breads, anything made with apples or pumpkin, meat (especially bacon), doughnuts, popcorn, red wine, mead.