Samhain is an ancient Seasonal Celebration that marks the end of the growing season. It is a time to welcome the wisdom and gifts of darkness and death.
November is the season of death and dying, and Samhain is a celebration of all that has come before. It is also an opportunity to align the body, mind, and spirit with the energy of darkness and endings. Western society tends to bypass the discomfort of death, ignoring the grief for the sake of progress. We witches know our strength, courage, and power come from a healthy relationship with both life and death. We do not demonize the darkness, but rather we embrace it as our teacher and place of rest.
What is Samhain?
Samhain (“Sah-win”) is one of four Cross-Quarter holidays on the Celtic Wheel of the Year, along with Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Imbolc. It is a Seasonal Celebration that honors the end of the growing season. It is a time of letting go and embracing the wisdom and gifts of darkness and death. In the Northern Hemisphere, the trees lose their leaves, we pull the final harvest from the garden, and the hunting season has begun. Samhain begins on the eve of November 1st, which is known as today’s Halloween. It marks the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
Where does Samhain come from?
The name Samhain comes from Old Irish, meaning “Summer’s End,” and it is the Gaelic name for the month of November. It is not so much a specific day, but rather a season. Originally celebrated by the Gaelic Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, Samhain is the last of three harvest festivals. It marks the time of year when the Celts would bring their cattle home from summer pastures.
What Does Samahain Celebrate?
Samhain, along with Beltane, was observed as a threshold/liminal celebration. It was believed that at this time the veil between the realms grew thin. It was a time when fairies and spirits could cross over from the Otherworld and cause mischief. Offerings were placed outside to satisfy the spirits so they would not harm the livestock or food stores. Samhain was one of the main Fire Festivals, when fire and smoke were used to cleanse and purify animals, food, and people before the long winter. Early writings also suggest that on Samhain the Gaelic Celts would open their burial mounds as portals to the Otherworld. At this time, the beloved dead were believed to cross the threshold to seek company and comfort in the homes of their families. The Gaelic Celts would set a place at the dinner table for the dead to join them.
How is Samhain Celebrated Today?
Samhain remains alive in today’s Halloween celebrations. In the 9th Century, the Christian Church folded Samhain into their holy calendar, renaming it All Saint’s Day and later All Soul’s Day. But, the ancient pagan customs are alive and well in the traditions of costumes and trick-or-treating. Dressing up as ghosts and ghouls was intended to confuse the spirits that crossed over from the Otherworld. Offering treats to these ‘spirits,’ harkens back to the days of passing out ‘soul cakes’ or other offerings to appease mischievous spirits.
Contemporary pagans have embraced Samhain as a spiritual holiday, a time to honor the energy of the season, walk the threshold to the Otherworld, and divine the future. Many pagans conduct ceremonies to connect with the dead. A common practice is to create an ancestor altar or host a “Dumb Supper.” A “Dumb Supper” is a silent dinner party where an extra plate is set out for the beloved dead. Participants spend the entire meal in silence, leaving space for the dead to be felt. Cleansing rituals are also common at this time, as well as protection spells.
How Can You Celebrate Samhain at Home?
Celebrate the Natural World
Honor the energy of the season by taking a walk in nature. Collect gifts from nature that reflect the quality of the season: nuts, leaves, branches, owl pellets… Pay attention to how the natural world is changing. Revel in the colors and smells of this time of year. Spend time in the garden, or visit a farm. Drink apple cider. Make squash soup. Have a feast from the gifts of late Autumn.
Reflect on Your Personal / Spiritual Journey
Notice how the season impacts you physically and psychologically. The body senses the change in light The animal part of ourselves understands we are turning toward the time of dark and scarcity. Anxiety and a need for preparation arise at this time as we feel called to get our resources organized. It is natural to use this time to reexamine routines, diet, and finances.
Samhain is also a time of reflection on how we have changed during the growing season. Review your New Year’s resolutions or your Vision Board and notice what you have accomplished. In the garden we collect seeds for next year. Similarly, what seeds of growth do you want to hold onto and nourish during the winter? What would you like to accomplish in the next growing season?
This is also a time of letting go. How have your goals changed? As we grow and improve, we gain greater clarity on what we really want. Now is a time to let go of the projects, relationships, and aspirations that no longer resonate with your next-best-self.
Honor Your Ancestors
Create an Ancestor Altar. Gather photos of your beloved dead. I caution against welcoming ancestors who are not well and good in your memory. You may not want to welcome the presence of a toxic person to your home. Instead, make space for the ancestors who are remembered fondly. Frame the photos, or if you have scrapbooking supplies, create “Ancestor Cards” using collage. Display the photos on a mantel, bookshelf, or counter. Put down a nice cloth, perhaps a family heirloom. Add flowers, food, drink, books, memorabilia, etc… to the altar. Put out things your ancestors would have liked. Say their names. Give thanks for their gifts, their lives, and their legacy. Light candles in their honor.
Investigate your Heritage. This is a great time to dive into your family tree, and teach your children about their bloodline. Each November, my family adds a little more to our Family Tree. One year I bought my parents DNA tests, and we started investigating our distant relatives using an online software. Each year we unearth more documents saved by my grandmother, adding notes to our Family Tree. You can also connect with ancestors through shamanic journeying or visualization. This is how I learned about my great-grandmother, Edith. She came to me in a journey, but I didn’t even know her name. All I could deduce was she was my grandmother’s mother and she was frustrated that I didn’t know her story. Afterward, I made a point to learn more about her story, and found out she was an actress in the 1920’s.
Host a Silent Supper. Having records of one’s ancestors is a privilege that not everyone has. Many families were torn apart by forced enslavement or rapid migration. Not everyone has access to family photos or records of their lineage. Hosting a Silent Supper is one way to connect with the ancestors we know nothing about. Begin by making a feast of favorite foods. Make dishes that were beloved or passed down in your family. If you do not have traditional recipes in your family, cook foods that make you feel good and at home. Set the table with family heirlooms, or your fanciest dishware. Get dressed up. Add drama by wearing all black. Put out a plate for the ancestors. Maybe leave a place-card that says, “For The Beloved Dead.” And, when you sit down to eat, call in the relatives that are well and good. Give thanks for their gifts, lives, and legacy. Eat in silence. When you are done, be sure to give thanks to the ancestors and send them on their way.
An altar is a sacred space that represents your beliefs, commitments, and spiritual practices. Colorful fabrics, statues, feathers, incense, Tarot cards, and stones can activate the spiritual mindset. I like to update my altars seasonally, refreshing them with each turn of the Wheel. Here are some things you can add to a Samhain-inspired altar to help you align with the energy of this time of year:
- Colors: orange, black, purple, and brown. Get inspiration from the colors in your own environment.
- Pumpkins, squashes, and gourds.
- Skulls and antlers
- Family heirlooms & ancestor photos
- Symbol of the Goddess/Crone that resonates with you, perhaps Hekate or Cerridwen.
- Smoky quartz and obsidian
- Edible offerings to ancestors (use their favorite foods / drinks)
- Tarot Cards: Death, The Wheel of Fortune
- Divination tools
Samhain In A Nutshell
- Celebrated on October 31st – November 1st, it is a Cross-Quarter Holiday on the Celtic Wheel of the Year
- It was originally celebrated by the Gaelic Celts, but it is also known as Halloween.
- It is a time to honor the end of the growing season and welcome the gifts of the dark winter months.
- You can celebrate Samhain in your own home by:
- Spending time in nature
- Reflecting on your personal journey
- Honoring Your Ancestors with…
- An Ancestor Altar
- Developing Your Family Tree
- Hosting a Silent Supper
- Creating an altar space that aligns you up with the energy of the season
May this article support your joy, purpose, and power. Take what resonates with you and leave what doesn’t.
With love and magic,