You probably celebrate Halloween by dressing up in a costume or binge-watching scary movies, but do you know the holiday’s origins? The roots of Halloween can be traced back to Samhain (pronounced SOW-win). Haven’t heard of it? Samhain is an annual celebration that originated with the ancient Celts, who roamed across Britain and France before their occupation by the Roman Empire (which tolled the death bell for a lot of pagan traditions) more than 2,000 years ago.
The Celts celebrated eight “sabbats” throughout the year—festivals that marked turning points in nature’s annual cycle, kind of like cheering in each new season while saying goodbye to the old one. Samhain was held October 31 to November 1, and it represented the start of winter and the end of the harvest year. It was seen as a beginning of darker days, longer nights, and reaping whatever resources had been grown in the year just gone (crops and livestock).
The Celts believed that every Samhain, a deity known as the Lord of the Dead would gather the souls of everyone who had died in the previous year (and had since been living inside various animals…don’t ask) to begin their journey to the Celtic underworld, Tír na nÓg. They thought that an invisible veil separated the worlds of the living and the dead and that at sundown on Samhain, the last day of the year, that veil was it its thinnest. This was a time to make contact with the dead, which they did by lighting bonfires and lanterns to lead lonely or heartsick spirits home to visit with their family and preparing offerings of food and vegetables, which they called a “dumb supper.”
Also known as Autumn Cross-Quarter, Halloween, All Souls’ Night, Dark Moon, and Feast of the Dead, Samhain was also seen as the ending and beginning of the Celtic New Year (which is why some people call it Witches’ New Year!). On this day, especially at dawn and dusk, the veil between the seen world and the unseen world of spirit is particularly thin. And over the past several decades, Samhain has seen a resurgence in popularity as it has been embraced by Wiccans and others who draw from pagan traditions.
Samhain is a time that humans have, for centuries, honored their dead, told fortunes, planned for the year ahead, and celebrated what they have achieved or reaped in the previous year.
Let’s acknowledge the vibe of this old tradition, in a modern way, and celebrate Samhain.
Honor Your Ancestor with a “Dumb” (as in silent) Supper
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the tradition of the “dumb supper” involves a meal eaten in total silence. Decorate a table with photos and mementos of the people you wish to remember and celebrate. Add candles and flowers (choosing colors, scents, and blooms that evoke a memory) and put out extra plates to represent the people you’re memorializing.
Light the candles at the beginning of the supper to welcome in the spirits, then eat dinner in silence so you are super sensitive to the vibes in the room—and able to reflect on your own memories and emotions in peace.
The Celts would gather around a communal village fire on Samhain, then take a burning branch home to light their own hearth. These communal fires would be placed all around a village to help guide spirits home. Having your own bonfire might be a bit ambitious (although if you have the space, go for it), but you can certainly focus on the lighting in your home. Candles, colored light bulbs, new lamps—get them all out and create a festive mood.
Create a Samhain Centerpiece
If you have a table, windowsill, or mantel you use for decorations (or even an altar), then consider creating a temporary Samhain display. Think of it as something you can gaze at as you reflect on all the things you’ve achieved this year. Add orange, black, white, and red candles; crystals such as tourmaline, obsidian, or amber; and fall flourishes like colorful leaves, pumpkins, corn dolls, pine cones, chestnuts, and even a Halloween decoration or two.
Dress Up With Flowers, Then Burn Them
Make flower crowns, garlands, and corsages with dying vegetation and flowers—a kind of Morticia Addams aesthetic. Wear them to your dumb supper or gather with friends to toast the Witches’ New Year. Then burn them (the flowers, NOT your friends) in a fire, letting go of the old year and welcoming into the new cycle.
Hold a Moon Circle
Assemble your spookiest up-for-magic pals and gather together in the moonlight on Samhain. Pour salt in a giant spiral and place a pile of nuts and a candle at its center. Then stand in a circle, holding hands, at the spiral’s edge. Walk inward toward the center of the spiral, mentally leaving behind something from the year just gone. You can also do this physically by writing things you want to leave behind on paper and then scattering them as you walk.
At the spiral’s center, light the candle. Then each person can take a nut (which represents the seed for new energy, beginnings, and growth) and walk out of the spiral, thinking about your intentions for the future.