Every year on October 31 (or May 1, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) the Sabbat we call Samhain (pronounced SOW-in, SAH-vin, or SAM-hayne) presents us with the opportunity to once more celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth. For many Pagan traditions, Samhain is a time to reconnect with our ancestors and honor those who have died.
The Pagan Roots of Samhain Samhain is the start of the Wiccan New Year. It is the highest holy day for Wiccans and is thought of as the most powerful night of the year for divination. For Wiccans as well as marking the start of the new year, it is about marking the end of the previous one. It is about letting go of the old and anticipating what is to come. Samhain is also the start of the dark time of the year where the nights are longest. It is the third and final harvest festival and marks the end of the harvest season. Samhain is known by many cultures as the Day of the Dead. For Wiccans that can mean remembering our loved ones and celebrating our ancestors.
This time of year is celebrated by many different cultures and religions under many names including All Hallows Eve, Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, and perhaps most famously Halloween. Halloween has been heavily influenced by Samhain. One of these ways is in the symbols of Samhain such as black cats and pumpkins. The Halloween tradition of ‘trick or treating’ is believed to date back to the early celebrations of Samhain where people would impersonate the spirits or the souls of the dead. Dressing up for Halloween could stem from the Celtic tradition of wearing costumes to celebrate Samhain. However, the Celts wore animal heads and skins rather than fancy dress outfits.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Depending on your individual spiritual path, there are many different ways you can celebrate Samhain, but typically the focus is on either honoring our ancestors, or the cycle of death and rebirth. We may choose to honor our ancestors, celebrate those who have died, and even try to communicate with them.
Here are a few rituals you may want to think about trying for Samhain–and remember, any of them can be adapted for either a solitary practitioner or a small group, with just a little planning ahead.
- Samhain Decoration. Decorate your home with Samhain seasonal symbols and the colors orange and black. Place an Autumnal wreath on your front door. Create displays with pumpkins, cornstalks, gourds, acorns, and apples. Set candles in cauldrons.
- Samhain 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.
- Ancestors Altar. Gather photographs, heirlooms, and other mementos of deceased family, friends, and companion creatures. Arrange them on a table, dresser, or another 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 Samhain dinner. Include a place setting at your table or at a nearby altar for the Dead. 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. To have this as a Samhain Dumb Supper experience, dine in silence. After the feast, place the contents of the plate and cup for the Dead outdoors in a natural location as an offering for the Dead.
- Ancestor Stories. Learn about family history. Contact one or more older relatives and ask them to share memories of family members now dead. Record them in some way and later write accounts of what they share. Give thanks. Share what you learned and have written with another family member or friend. Add names of those you learned about and wish to honor to your Ancestors Altar.
- 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. Place an offering there such as fresh flowers, dried herbs, or a libation of water.
- 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.
- Divinatory Guidance. Using Tarot, Runes, Scrying, or some other method of divination, seek and reflect on guidance for the year to come. Write a summary of your process and messages. Select something appropriate to act upon and do it.
- 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.
- Transforming Expressions. If you encounter distortions, misinformation, and/or false, negative stereotypes about Paganism and Samhain in the media, contact the source, express your concerns, and share accurate information. Help eradicate derogatory stereotyping with courteous, concise, and intelligent communications.
- Community Connections. Connect with others. Join in a group ritual in your area. Organize a Samhain potluck in your home. Research old and contemporary Samhain customs in books, periodicals, online, and through communications with others. Exchange ideas, information, and celebration experiences. Regardless of whether you practice solo or with others, as part of your festivities, reflect for a time on being part of the vast network of those celebrating Samhain around the world.
Samhain Symbols There are many symbols of Samhain you will be familiar with, such as pumpkins, black cats, waning moon, cauldron, scarecrow, broom, and acorn. The seasonal colors of black and orange are well known, but not the reasons for them. Black symbolizes death and endings, orange for the vitality of life with death.
Samhain Food and Recipes
Samhain is new years eve for Wiccans and the final harvest festival. It is a great time of year to celebrate with food. Below are some ideas.
- Bake gingerbread and shape it into people, or symbols such as cats, bats, moons, or other symbols.
- Make freshly roasted nuts.
- Drinks of the season include mead, mulled wine, and cider.
- If you decorate or carve pumpkins use the flesh to create pumpkin soup, pie, or toast the seeds.
I hope you enjoyed discovering the Pagan roots of this holiday and celebrating what is one of the most important dates in the wheel of the year! Blessed Be.