Samhain – Halloween
Once upon a time, people lived so close to the Earth, that they were feeling the changes of seasons and the circles of life from within. They were paying attention to Nature and her rhythms and adjusted themselves to the laws of the universe. They believed in spirits and magic and the power of herbs and rituals. They honored the end and the beginning of seasons, the plants and the animals, the Sun and the Moon. Observing the stars, the location of the sun and moon and the shifts of energy upon the Earth, they knew when a big change was coming and celebrated it. People knew that they were part of the Cosmic Dance and joined this dance with grace and intention, with festivities and ceremonies.
Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year’s Eve
In that time, the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year’s Eve. Samhain, which translates to “end of summer”, occurred around the end of October, when the weather started to get cold. At its heart, was an observance of all the important things that were happening during this change of seasons. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and was time for communication with the Ancestors, a time for divination, omens and seeking to understand inner mysteries.
The family’s ancestors were honored and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm. Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities. Household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire, to help protect them during the coming winter. Food was prepared for the living and the dead, food for the ancestors who were in no position it eats it, was ritually shared with the less well off.
The Day of the Dead
Samhain is one of our four Greater Sabbats, the highest holy day of witches. It is a cross-quarter day, situated between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. It is the third and final harvest festival. Samhain inaugurates Winter, is the final chance to dry herbs for winter storage, and a night when fairies supposedly afoot working mischief. It is the Day of the Dead for the Celts, Egyptians and ancient Mexicans. We also celebrate reincarnation and note the absence of the Sun (the god), who will be reborn at Winter Solstice as the Child of Promise. Astrologically, Samhain marks the rising of the Pleiades. Christianity incorporated the honoring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd.
The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits, as well as many other rituals survived until our days as Halloween (All Hallows Eve) customs. In a custom called “souling”, children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treat. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. As part of the Samhain celebration, Celts would bring home an ember from the communal bonfire at the end of the night. They carried these embers in hollowed-out turnips, creating a lantern resembling the modern-day jack-o’-lantern. The mystical aspect of the day is still represented by costumes of witches, black cats, skeletons, ghosts, storytelling and horror movies.
This is the dark phase of the year’s circle when the mystery of transformation occurs. This process involves a descent and a death of something old in preparation for something new to be reborn. Use this time to slip beyond the rational and the logical and go beyond the seen world. Use this time for collecting, sorting, memorizing learning so when the time for action comes you will have assimilated new knowledge. Turn and look at what you fear and the understanding that brings. Nurture your visions, dreams, ideas and direction, so that they may incubate in the dark winter months ready for when the active phase begins again.
The sacred plants for Samhain are the ones you can find this season: Rosemary, Dandelion root, Mugwort, Valeriana and Elderberry, Apples and Pomegranates, Pumpkin and Squash. You can use them for your Samhain altar along with some candles.
Here is what else you can do to honor the day:
- 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.
- Seasonal decoration. Decorate your home with Samhain seasonal symbols and the colors of orange and black. Use pumpkins, cornstalks, apples and autumn flowers. Set candles in cauldrons.
- Ancestors Altar. Gather photographs and other mementos of deceased family, friends, and companion creatures. Arrange them on a table or other surface, along with 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.
- 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 food served to the plate. When dinner is over, bring this plate outside and offer to nature.
- Bonfire Magic. Kindle a bonfire outdoors when possible or kindle flames in a fireplace or a small cauldron. Write down a 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.
- Reflections. Reflect on your visions and make visible the invisible. Draw or paint and let the unconscious speak to you through the images you produce. Let go of the rational mind and try to seek the seeds of your inner world as it comes out.
- Divinatory Guidance. Using Tarot or some other method of divination, seek and reflect on guidance for the year to come. Select something appropriate to act upon and do it.
Our Samhain bonfire will be on this night of the year as we will honor and remember our family members and friends that have gone to the other side. May their light, enlighten our hearts! May we be brave to face our fears and transform them to love!
We are tomorrow’s ancestors
the future of yesterday
and what we are in here and now
goes rippling out all ways
goes rippling out always
– Brian Boothby