Ways to Celebrate Samhain
While spring is my favourite time of year, I also love the arrival of autumn. With it comes that lovely mood of turning within. The days grow colder, nights lengthen, and we retreat indoors to seek comfort in cosy pursuits. As we bank down for the winter months, it’s a time for reflection; looking back on the seasons that have passed, what we sowed, and what we reaped. New Year’s Eve is traditionally the time for making resolutions, but those sweeping changes we declare while high on celebration, tend not to stick. Instead, the quiet contemplations made over the winter subtly form the basis for change often instigated once spring rolls around, without us even realising.
Of course, autumn also brings Samhain (sounds like saa-wn, and is pronounced Sow-win, like the female pig) a Gaelic festival which marks the end of the harvesting season, and the beginning of winter. It also marks the Celtic New Year. Traditionally, this festival begins on the eve of October 31st as Celtic days were treated as beginning and ending at sunset. Along with Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa, Samhain was one of the four main festivals observed throughout Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland for centuries. Rooted in Celtic pagan origins, it’s first mentioned in Irish literature in the 9th century. The festival was marked with feasting, gathering, music and song, along with bonfires, and in some instances, sacrifices. Many of Ireland’s ancient burial mounds were opened during Samhain, as it was believed they contained portals to the Otherworld. The Mound of the Hostages at the Hill of Tara, and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh are examples of Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain.
Samhain holds similarities to the Spring festival of Beltaine which was also celebrated with bonfires, believed to bring protection and cleansing. Known as liminal (or threshold) festivals, it was the time when the veil thinned, allowing spirits or fairies to access the mortal world. During Samhain, these visitors were appeased with offerings to ensure the people and their animals made it through the winter.
During the 8th century, November 1st was designated as All Saints Day or All Hallows Day by the Catholic Church, a commemoration for Saints who didn’t have a specific date of remembrance. The night before was known as All Hallows Eve, which in time became known as Halloween. In a bid to overcome the ancient pagan traditions of Ireland, the Church hoped this blending of festivals would prompt the pagans to turn to Christianity.
Halloween is a more light-hearted celebration than Samhain with its costumes, trick-or-treating, fireworks, and jack-o-lanterns. Did you know the jack-o-lantern originated in Ireland? But instead of the modern-day pumpkins, folks used large turnips, beets or potatoes (any excuse to use a spud, right?). The practice of carving scary faces and lighting them with a candle was believed to scare away the wandering spirits, one fellow in particular; Stingy Jack. Legend claims Stingy Jack made a few deals with the devil, but they didn’t go as planned. When he died, neither heaven nor hell would welcome his spirit, so he was handed a lump of burning coal and sent packing to roam the earth forever. Stingy Jack scooped out a turnip and placed the coal inside, hence the nickname; Jack of the Lantern, which eventually became Jack O’Lantern.
In comparison to the frivolity of Halloween, Samhain celebrations are generally a lot more reserved, and often observed in private. In modern times, many pagans continue to view Samhain as the New Year. As a professional tarot reader, October and November prove my busiest months for spreads reflecting on the past year, and what lies in store for the year ahead. One of my personal Samhain rituals is to do my own reading for the upcoming twelve months, and after, reflect on the past year and journal my thoughts.
Samhain rituals can be as complicated or simple as you like. Remember, with all magical workings, the intent behind the action is the most important part—not the tools, size or number of crystals, nor the witchy aesthetic of your surroundings. With this in mind, here are rituals ranging from the most simple to those requiring more ingredients.
Light a single candle, and sit in contemplation for a while, reflecting on departed kin. Simply say hi, think about that person, have a chat, and give thanks for how they impacted your life. If it’s safe to do so, allow the candle to burn out. A tea light is ideal for this.
The ritual can be carried out once, or held over a period of days. If you feel inspired to do so, journal about the ritual, or write a personal note to the deceased.
Visit the grave of a departed loved one. Tend to the site if possible, or add a fresh plant, flowers, dried herbs, or just water. If it’s preferable, simply place a token on the headstone or in the earth. If you’d like to light a candle, place a tea light in a glass jar so the wind can’t snuff it out. Spend some time at the grave. You could recite a favourite prayer, a passage or poem from a beloved book, or quietly sing a song that reminds you of them. Give thanks for their presence in your life. Recall memories of your times together, and let them know what they meant to you.
Gather photos and/or mementoes of departed kin and create an altar for them. Decorate with herbs, flowers, crystals, or any tokens you may have. Decorate in a way you feel your kin would have appreciated. Light a candle and/or incense daily and take a few moments to say hello and give thanks. Speak their name aloud. Note anything that comes up; random words or phrases, images or song lyrics, and journal them for further contemplation.
Repurpose a box with a lid (any size you like) and ensure it’s clean and dry. You might like to cleanse it with smoke of sage or your favourite incense. If smoking herbs isn’t an option, you can sprinkle salt into the box and leave it sit overnight. After, throw the salt away responsibly.
If your chosen box needs a little love, consider decorating it. It can be something simple like wrapping it in pretty paper or tissue, or you can get very crafty and go to town with paints, decoupage etc.
Gather together memories of those you wish to honour; photos, tokens, jewellery, letters, heirlooms. If you’ve had to say goodbye to a beloved furry friend, you can include tokens for these kin too. If you feel the items need a cleanse, use sage or incense as before. Be cautious if using salt, especially on fragile items that might not react well to the sodium. Setting the items in a bowl of uncooked rice, and surrounding that bowl by a ring of salt, will also do the trick. With rice, leave for a minimum of twenty-four hours.
Once you have your items gathered, place them inside the box. Write a blessing for your departed kin. You may have something you specifically wish to reference, or request, but do ensure to include thanks.
Here’s the blessing I use. I’ve had it for so long, I honestly can’t say whether I wrote it myself. I did google it, but found no source, so I’ll cautiously take credit. Please feel free to use it, and if you know of the original source, let me know and I’ll credit them!
Spirits of my mothers and fathers
Spirits of my animal guides and friends
You watch over me always, protecting and guiding.
Your blood runs in my veins, your spirit beats in my heart, and your memories lighten my soul.
Thank you for your love, thank you for your protection.
I honour you with my thoughts and actions, and know we will meet again.
Place the box on your altar, or a suitable sacred place. It can remain there year round, or just for Samhain—whichever you prefer. If left in place for the short-term, consider lighting a candle and saying the blessing each day. Incense, essential oils, tokens from nature, or a personal ‘gift’ you know your ancestor would have appreciated can be placed in, on, or beside the box.
My ancestor box lives on my altar year round. I occasionally drop in a little gift of a crystal or something from nature that stirs a memory of a departed family member or pet. If I’m struggling for guidance or simply want to say hi, I take out the blessing, light a candle and spend a few moments in reflection.
Get a blaze going! This could be an outdoor bonfire, or a more contained fire within a fire pit, or your hearth inside the home. A smaller scale fire could be lit in a cauldron or any suitable fire-proof container. With the season celebrating endings and beginnings, consider what habits you’d like released. Write them on a piece of paper, and once ready, set the paper alight. As you watch the paper burn and dissolve to ash, picture the Universe taking it away from you and dispersing it safely. Once the ash has cooled, dispose of it responsibly. For a more elaborate post on release rituals, click here!
Tarot, Runes, and Crystal balls!
Fancy a little divinatory magic? Dig out your preferred method of divination and get busy!
With Samhain a season of reflection, there’s no better ritual than working with your preferred method of divination. Contemplate on what you wish to learn in advance, and ensure you enter the reading with questions that will help you get them most from the ritual.
Avoid questions that ask for a Yes/No answer, and work with What/How/Where questions instead. For example: Instead of: Will I find love this year? Ask: How can I best welcome in love to my life? Or, instead of: Will I get the job of my dreams? rephrase to: Where should I focus my energy within my career? Bring a journal to the table so you can document the result of your reading. Even if something comes up that doesn’t make sense at the time, it often clarifies at a later date. With the season prompting us to turn within, there are many spreads out there for inner work. Pinterest is a great source for tarot spreads if you’re in need of inspiration.
Year Ahead Spread
Here’s a tarot spread to examine what lies in store for the year ahead. Ideal for reading on a birthday, anniversary, Samhain, or the New Year. If you’d like to book a reading with me for this deep insight, click over to Services and check out the Your Date With Destiny reading. (It’s on special offer this October!) If tarot isn’t your jam, this spread works just as good with oracle cards.
While it might sound a bit rude, the term Dumb Supper refers to a meal held in silence. The origins of this tradition are argued, but neopagans have adopted it over the years, and this beautiful practice is now quite popular in many spiritual communities.
The idea behind a Dumb Supper is to invite one or more deceased family members to a meal with yourself and others. Consider your invitations in advance, and like any good host, spend time choosing a suitable menu—seasonal foods if possible, and be conscious of dietary requirements for both the living and deceased. If, for example, your grandmother was a staunch vegetarian, she may not appreciate a roast beef dinner in her honour. Bear in mind no-one should speak at the table, so your guests might like to know in advance what’s being served (especially if they have allergies).
Once you have your menu decided, consider how you will lay the table. You might like to place mementos or heirlooms of the guests in the centre; photographs, letters etc., or, place them at the space where they will ‘sit’. For example, if your uncle was a scrabble fanatic, a rack with letters would make a fun table addition. Books, vinyls, tools of their trade; anything that might represent their passion or hobby can be used to decorate the table. Halloween themed napkins and crockery could be fun too, or you may prefer to use all black and keep the mood sombre. Consider how your special guests would like the table set, and work from there.
The head of the table is where the guest of honour will sit. If you wish to honour more than one, represent each invitee with a specific token in this space. The chair can be draped with a shroud, or decorated with flowers, garlands, etc. A memento of the relative such as a hat or coat could also be placed on the chair. Place a candle at their setting which should be lit before the meal.
Ensure your living guests understand and respect the meal will be eaten in silence. Children may find the idea upsetting, so it might be best to invite adults only. Plan ahead to avoid making as little noise as possible once at the table. Serve food already plated so dishes aren’t being handed around, and guests don’t have to gesture to ‘pass the mash, please!’ It will also reduce the clink and scrape of guests serving themselves. It might also be worth placing more than one set of condiments spaced out and within easy reach to avoid motioning for salt and pepper.
Turn off the lights and everything electrical where possible. Ensure there are no phones, music, or chances of disruption. If the single candle at the head of the table risks leaving some eating in the dark, space candles safely at the table or around the room. A darker room does add to the atmosphere however!
Once your guests enter the dining room, there should be silence throughout the entire meal. Guests might like to pause for a moment at the chair of the special guest and offer a silent prayer before they take their seat.
Pause once everyone is seated to welcome the unseen guest/s and invite them to enjoy the meal and company. If your guests appreciate the power behind the meal’s solemnity, it will make for a compelling ritual, so discussing the event in advance will allow them to come prepared with their own silent thoughts, blessings or prayers, and know what to expect.
Guests can also bring a note written in advance of whatever they’d like to say to the deceased. They can keep this with them during the meal, and once the meal is over, they can take turns lighting the paper over a fire-proof dish at the special guest/s place. This note should not be shared amongst the guests, but respected as a private moment between the living and dead.
Your special guest should receive a plate of food. Plan ahead on how you will ensure it doesn’t go to waste. Some ingredients may be safe for wildlife to consume, but check in advance.
Incense can be used while dining. Again, choose something the departed would enjoy. Herbs, plants and flowers associated with Samhain include rosemary (for remembrance), cloves, ginger, cinnamon, apple, pomegranate, pumpkins, gourds and squashes, mugwort, and rowan berries.
After the meal, why not move outside and enjoy a bonfire? If burning the private messages indoors isn’t an option, each guest could take a turn at the bonfire, fire pit, or simply a safe container for fire, to silently read their message, then burn it to mark the end of the ritual. Celebrate the return of your voices with song, recite passages written by the deceased member’s favourite author or poet, or simply share fond memories of the deceased instead.
I hope these rituals provide a little inspiration for this year’s Samhain celebrations. If you have a ritual you love to practice, let me know! Simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Likewise, if there’s a topic you’d like to see featured on the blog, or would like to write a guest blog article, reach out to me. Our creative community is wide and deep, so don’t be shy! The more we share our wisdom and experiences, the more we spread the love.