My most poignant memory of this time of year, was finally plucking up the courage to go out trick or treating, alone, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and knocking on the door of this beautiful old white brick building in my hometown. Only to be greeted by a lady who thrust a leaflet in my face and shouting, Do you KNOW this is a PAGAN festival! Now, I have no idea of whether she was trying to teach me a valuable lesson about not using Halloween as a way of begging for sweets, or whether she was trying to steer me away from the horror that is Paganism, but what I do know, is that it has stuck with me my whole life. It was also an act that I now see as kindness, that made me look into Paganism more deeply, and learn to understand the festival that most now call Halloween, but which is actually a Celtic festival called Samhain. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st to be All Saints Day, a time to honour the saints. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and so the term Halloween was born.
Long before the term Halloween came to be, Samhain was understood to be the beginning of the Celtic New Year. It means Summers end, and it was the acceptance that the nights would be getting longer, the weather colder, and when families would come back to the homestead after bringing the animals down from the hills, for the Winter ahead. In pre-Christian times, the fires of Ireland were extinguished at sunset on Samhain and a fire was kindled by the Arch Druid/Druidess on the hill of Tlachtga. Every family would carry home a torch to rekindle the hearth, to keep the fires burning through the Winter.
In the Witches calendar, there's a slightly different focus. It is still the time of year between the Summer and Winter, a time of no time, between the end and the beginning, but is also seen as the time when the veils between the material world and the spirit world are at their thinnest, allowing the living to communicate with the dead. Lanterns would be placed outside the doorway to guide lost loved ones home to their families, and a place at the dinner table would be set for those that were missing. The lanterns outside would be protected from going out, with pumpkins, turnips, or gourds, likely the reason why carved pumpkins are so popular in modern-day celebrations of Halloween. Trick or Treating, another popular activity of today's Halloween, is actually a re-enactment of a tradition that would see departed spirits, if not properly welcomed, leaving hexes and unpleasant gifts at the door.
Get your Altar Samhain Ready! Samhain is a time to remember family ancestors, so including photographs of them on your altar is a great start. But it's also a time to look forward to the future. Working some divination into your celebrations is a great way to spend Samhain. Grab your tarot cards, your crystal ball, or your pendulum, and do some fortune-telling! Decorate your altar with a black cloth, and perhaps some lace to symbolise the thin veil between the material world and the spirit world. Alternatively, the colours of the season are a great way to start your altar off. Burgundy, purple, orange, these are all perfect colours for the base of your altar. You can also add some candles that can be lit to symbolise the light of the hearth, and to guide your loved one's spirit home. If you're including images of ancestors, you could add other items that bring back memories of them. A piece of jewellery, an old diary or pocketbook, a ticket stub from a movie you shared. Anything that holds a place in your memory of your loved ones, is a suitable adornment for your altar. Even food! My mum used to bake the most amazing chocolate cake. What better bit of food could I sit at the altar with. The practice of adding food and drink to the altar is not just limited to serving as a memory. There are many folk tales and superstitions about feeding the souls of the dead to keep them happy.
A big part of what Samhain is about is celebrating life and death. Bones and ashes may seem dramatic, but it's a direct connection to the heart of the festival. They don't have to be of your direct ancestors, of course! Many other symbols that are associated with Samhain are also associated with the festival of Mabon, which you may have read in the earlier post, include nuts, berries, leaves, and acorns. Secular symbols of Autumn, if you like, and products of the harvest, of which Samhain is the third and final harvest.
You could also include crystals, my favourite addition, of course. Crystals such as labradorite and bloodstone are great for divination if you plan to communicate with ancestors. Citrine, Golden Healer quartz, carnelian, all fabulous crystals that represent the warmth of the hearth, the last drops of sun before the winter.
What else can I do? Honour your lost animals. Explore your family tree. Host a dumb supper - a meal where nobody speaks is thought to make spirits more likely to attend the supper. And if you're feeling more communicative, hold a seance!
There are many ways to celebrate Samhain, at the altar, or in nature. Spending time outside, regardless of how chilly it may be here in the North-East, is a wonderful way to connect with Mother Earth.
I'd love to hear what you get up to. Send us your pics or comment below! Samhain blessings to you and your families, present, and past. Kx