“Tonight is the first of three nights, on which we celebrate Samhain. It is the end of the harvest, the last days of summer, and the cold nights wait on the other side for us. The bounty of our labor, the abundance of the harvest, the success of the hunt, all lies before us. We thank the earth for all it has given us this season, and yet we look forward to winter, a time of sacred darkness.”
In yesterday’s post, I explored the meaning of the end/beginning of the Pagan year as marked by Samhain. Today I’d like to give you some more information about the Sabbat itself, including some modernized traditions to help you celebrate mindfully in just a couple days.
In these considerations, like I touched on yesterday, it’s important to remember that darkness and death are essential parts if this Pagan holy day. So much so that in addition to meaning “summer’s end” Samhain is also historically the name of a Celtic diety known as the “Lord of Darkness.” It was traditionally believed that on this night, this diety roamed the earth collecting the departed souls of those who had died throughout the year.
This historical belief directly contributed to the celebrations of the Sabbat to the same degree harvest and the changing of seasons did, but in arguably more gruesome and morbid ways. As I provide the variety of potential observations of this Sabbat below these distinctions will become more obvious. Please keep in mind the beauty and opportunities the darkness offers from the Pagan perspective as well, and you may even be able to spot the ways in which fear has affected and distorted these practices over time for yourself.
My Top 13 Samhain Rituals
#1 – Reflection
As I mentioned yesterday, Samhain marks the end and thus the beginning of Pagan years, making it the opportune time for reflection. In addition to being the most important and impactful, this is also one of the simplest rituals on this list. Simply get out a journal and spend some time thinking back over the past year:
What were your intentions at this time last year?
What have been the major milestones, changes and decisions you have made this year?
Has your year had a theme?
What do you consider your “harvest” for this year and how does that inspire you to prepare for the upcoming year?
Keep asking questions and make note of anything that feels important, no matter the degree.
This is a powerful ritual that can be done by anyone, and it has a multitude of benefits. By reflecting we are giving ourselves the opportunity to let the lessons of our past really sink in, essentially making the meaning of our lives for ourselves and opening up our awareness to more recognition, gratitude and mindfulness.
#2 – Divination
Much like reflection, divination gives us the opportunity to pause, consider and then consequently become more purposeful with our lives. A simplified way of thinking about divination is as the counterpart to prayer: with prayers, you are offering messages concerning your needs, wants and concerns to the divine, whereas with divination you are opening yourself up to recieve messages about such things from the divine.
Divination is available to all of us through tools like astrology and numerology, and you may also find yourself drawn to Oracle or Tarot cards, pendulums and Runes as well. There is no necessity to have a Diviner do a reading for you, just that you come to the divine channel honestly, humbly and with an openness to recieve rather than a desire to control. If you would prefer, you can find someone who has been called to this art to assist you. I am happy to offer my services, both for in-person and astral sessions, if you should feel so inclined.
Divination cannot reveal anything to you that you do not already know. It is not “fortune telling,” but rather tunes into the subtle superconscious and subconscious energies present in all of us. In this way, it helps us to see beyond our own biases to the truth that we ourselves may otherwise be blocking from our full consciousness. It is in this way another act of reflection, albeit one that also requires a much deeper surrender to divine guidance.
# 3-5 – Light Some Fires!
Traditionally, the Celts would put out all their lights (candle and fireplace flames) and then relight them using the Samhain bonfire. If you feel called and have the opportunity, a Samhain bonfire is a great tradition to partake in on the holy night. This can be considered symbolic of the old year ending and new year beginning, but fire itself has so much more to offer and is involved in other Samhain traditions as well.
“Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.”
Another tradition involves burning white candles in the windows of homes to help “guide the lost souls” across the thinning veil to the otherworld. It’s easy to see how the belief in Samhain as the “Lord of Darkness” and gatherer of departed souls plays into that last tradition, but did you also notice the similarities in our own modern Halloween jack-o-lantern’s? The latter is actually even more morbid, given that faces where historically carved into turnips and gourds before candles or coal were placed inside in hopes that they would ward of “evil spirits” as they passed by homes. Personally, I find the white candles more of a pleasant gift of guidance for departed loved ones and ancestors, but don’t really feel called to fend off evil faery folk myself.
The final Samhain tradition I’d like to mention that involves fire (other than Sacrifice, but that’s covered below), is that of Hell Money. Now, try not let the nickname startle you, it’s actually quite a lovely practice. Traditionally, fire is seen as having the power to send things “across the veil” to the otherworld, so Pagans would burn objects denoting value in order to absolve the debts of their ancestors. Literally sharing their harvest with their departed loved ones the best they knew how. These sacrifices-by-proxy have been modernized into a ritual of creating symbolic currency which is then burnt for the same effect, and sometimes even to the effects of paying one’s own karmic, past- or present-life debts too.
#6-8 – Honor Your Ancestors
In addition to setting some white candles to burn on your windowsills and burning Hell Money for them, there are other ways Samhain traditionally encourages us to recognize and honor our ancestors. One of which has found its way into our modern Halloween much like the jack-o-lanterns have, and it’s actually the practice of wearing costumes! Pagans would often dress up as their ancestors as a way of honoring them. Like the turnips of old though, this also had a darker twist in some practices as well, and some Pagans dressed up as monsters to scare the “evil spirits” (or in some traditions, faeries seeking the soul’s of their ancestors) away from them just like the gourds were supposed to from their homes.
One of the most beautiful traditions I have found though is a simple and private one, and that is to make an altar that honors your ancestors. An altar is any surface that you have set aside as holy or sacred and can contain any items that help to consecrate it for that purpose, as well as items that represent things or beings you wish to honor. In modern times, we often only see altars in churches or synagogues, but they can still be found in the homes of Pagans as well. By creating an altar in your home, you are setting aside a bit of what you own for the divine, and by placing pictures of your ancestors there you are metaphorically placing them into the divine’s eternal loving care. This is not only an act of love and honor, but one of surrender to divine grace and wisdom as well.
Finally, another tradition intended to honor departed loved ones was that of offering them food. This could be done by placing bread, cookies or root vegetables on the ancestral altar, or by setting a plate of food for each ancestor at the Samhain feast. Often, both of these traditions were practiced. The uneaten food was then often dumped out for animals or given to the less fortunate and seen as a gift to these beings from the ancestors whom in was originally given to.
#9-11 – Celebrate Your Harvest
Often celebration of harvest was done through the Samhain feast. The food was gathered together, either as a village or by a family, and then shared in as a community. Gathering our harvest might look different in modern times, but it’s still an important and sacred practice. This is truly the spirit of the Reflection ritual that began this list. Take some time to review and consider your work this past year honestly. Rejoice in your breakthroughs and abundance, as well as note how you will improve your progress in the year to come.
An easy was of representing this concept in your Samhain rituals is to add symbols of your harvest to your altar. Pictures from your job, certificates or diplomas, and anything that holds meaning for how you have progressed this past year will do. Place these articles upon your sacred space and honor them as gifts from the divine.
That being said, feasting is still an important Samhain tradition! Take this opportunity to make a big meal for your family and friends, acknowledging them as an integral part of your harvest as well. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this time of year naturally supports more vulnerability and thus an appreciation for those others who will help us through the dark and cold months ahead too. Don’t fight it, give in and become a bit more tender and generous yourself.
Another beautiful way you might practice this tradition in this era is to donate to a local food drive, soup kitchen or other charity. We must not only acknowledge what we have but also be truly grateful for our blessings in order to make the decision to be generous and charitable. Sharing is the ultimate way to celebrate harvest.
#12 – Sacrifice
Akin to charity, but much more personal, a ritual of sacrifice is a powerful one at any time of year, but especially at this time of the Pagan New Year. Still, sacrifice is one of those commonly misunderstood concepts of modern Paganism. Yes, traditionally sacrifices could be gruesome and even included children, but this isn’t unlike the history of other religions (even Biblically, Abraham was called to sacrifice his son Issac by God himself) and I think the only safe assumption to make regarding this topic is that humans in general have made mistakes throughout history.
What has persisted throughout the changes of time however, is the concept of letting go and releasing attachments to the divine in faith. This can be a beautiful and powerful spiritual practice and doesn’t have to be complicated or morbid at all. Doing this type of ritual at Samhain provides extra potency to the intent because it symbolizes leaving the sacrifice behind in the past year as well as opening up in spacious faith to what the new year will contain.
The Hell Money ritual, if done for you personally and not your ancestors, can be viewed as a sacrifice. Another option is to simply make a list of what you are letting go of and then burn it in your Samhain bonfire. Even the charity and generosity inspired by your harvest can be symbolic of your sacrifice. The key is merely your mindfulness and intention – if you are performing a ritual with the purpose of sacrifice, Spirit will know and respond accordingly.
#13 – Ceremony (and Singing)
Though “trick-or-treating” itself isn’t a tradition of Samhain, it’s roots are indeed Pagan as well. Villagers would go door to door collecting materials for the bonfire and feast, but instead of a catchphrase, they announced their presence by singing.
This is a tradition I wasn’t aware of a few years ago when I first began celebrating Samhain, yet I found myself writing songs at the side of my own bonfire whilst lighting white candles and burning hell money all the same. In this way, this forgotten tradition found a way back in to my own personal rituals though ceremony.
Ceremony is an intention that affects time in a similar way as to how an altar affects space: it sets it aside as sacred. By picking and chosing from these rituals, you can create for yourself your own Samhain ceremony with which to reclaim this Sabbat as your own personal holy day. If you like, perhaps you’ll even find yourself singing your way through the night like I do.
Creating Your Ceremony
There is no right or wrong way. There are no rituals you must have and if you choose to merely acknowledge the passing of the Sabbat you will still be affected by the cycles and changes it represents. That being said, you also have the opportunity to put these cycles and changes to work through your purposeful intentions.
The best way to choose the rituals is just by “going with your gut.” If something “called to you” explore it more, and if some rituals were off-putting or uninteresting to you simply pass them by. Collect only those tools that feel authentic to your spirit and then set about preparing for your ceremony in the same way.
Some rituals, like altars and feasts, will require some forethought and planning, whilst others will only require your time on the holy night itself (bonefire, white candles, hell money, etc). Observe your spirit’s prompting and don’t force anything to be more complicated than it has to be. Just remember, this isn’t something you’re doing to yourself but rather, something you’re doing for yourself.
The nights are growing long and cold, frost greeting me as I step outside in the morning, a cool-crispness lingering in the air – life seems to be muffled by impending winter here in the Colorado Rockies. As I wonder out into the crystal-dusted pine forests, and down the winding back roads of this rural American paradise I call home, my spirit is kindled by the upcoming recoiling of nature’s grandeur. For all the dwindling color and noise, there is a building of energy, somewhere deep, in the eternal core. I feel it tingling, soft but intent.
The Wheel is Turning
Samhain (31 Oct – 2 Nov) — Irish Gaelic for “summer’s end.” The standard Irish pronunciation is “sow-in” with the “ow” like in “cow.” Other pronunciations that follow with the many Gaelic dialects include “sow-een” “shahvin” “sowin” (with “ow” like in “glow”). The Scots Gaelic spelling is “Samhuin” or “Samhuinn.” There is no linguistic foundation for saying this word “samhane” the way it might look if it were English. When in doubt, just say “Hallows” or even “Hallowe’en.”
The Celts considered the sunset the start and end of their days, interestingly, Samhain is the equivalent of that for the year in the Northern hemisphere. It is the coming into darkness, the moment we have no choice but to surrender to cold limitations as the light and heat of summer fade and we prepare to reflect and rest – waiting for Spring’s new dawn.
It represents harvest, in fullness of meaning, including that of scarcity, limitations and even death. This time of year brings a natural examination of our preparedness, security and lack. This is why the veil thins, our ancestors come closer then ever and we are called into deeper consideration of ourselves and others.
Our defenses our low, our senses shocked and options limited in the dark and cold night of the year. Paranoia might even set in if we absentmindedly try to resist this change. Yet, there are so many delights to be had as we all become more limited and vulnerable too.
Despite the freedoms, possibilities and independence of summer’s midday heat, come nightfall we all return home to those we love for comfort and warmth. Sometimes those others aren’t “here,” but that makes us no less aware of their influence in our lives; for better or worse.
Death’s Place in the Year, and Life
In the ever-increasing bounty of the modern world, more and more people find themselves surrounded by the comforts of homes, technology and utilities. The reckoning of harvest isn’t as potentially devastating for most of us now, but does that mean it’s lost its meaning? Celebrations like Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos seem to imply otherwise.
“While non-Pagans see death as an ending, some Pagans view it as a beginning of the next phase of our existence. Perhaps it is because we view the cycle of birth and life and death and rebirth as something magical and spiritual, a never-ending, ever turning wheel. Rather than being disconnected from death and dying, we tend to acknowledge it as part of a sacred evolution.”
Paganism has many forms, contains many religions and creeds, and can manifest in an unlimited number of individual faiths. It is more a recognition of one’s own place among the natural order of existence than a prescription of how to recognize or perform that place. It requires one to accept responsibility for their soul, not as separate from the divine, but as an inspired refraction of divine manifestation, therefore intrinsically valuable and powerful.
If practiced authentically, this leads organically to a more contentious, considerate and compassionate life. Pagans often find themselves recognizing the divine souls within many layers of existence beyond humanity, including that of the crystalline frequencies of earth’s diverse mineral bodies and the archetypal symbolism and teachings of creatures from all sorts of realms and dimensions.
Interestingly, these revelations can lead to a romanticism of death, not as an absolution or escape from life, but as a cyclical progression of endless divine expression. It is the point of life in which spirit performs energetic alchemy and remanifests once again in divine glory. Essentially, it becomes clear that death begets life the same way life begets death.
I believe this is why humans feel the inexplicable draw to these holidays, to ancestors and to the other-side. This is why this night that marks the turn of the Wheel and the Pagan New Year is considered Hallows Eve (holy night) and the days that follow devoted to the saints and ancestors. At nightfall we return home for the dinner feast, we celebrate the day’s work, acknowledge the progress made and make note of anything we might try to do better in the morning. At Samhain we recognize the home within us and those who have helped make us, we celebrate the year’s harvest and make note of our reflections. In both instances, we prepare for more stillness and we say our prayers.
Letting the Meaning Resonate
For the Druidic tribes, intervals of cyclical reality both ended and started with natural withdrawal, reflection and rest. They gave themselves a headstart by considering their progress, intentions and preparations long before the beginning of the next day or year. With naturally increased humility, heightened awareness of their necessities as well as honor for those they rely on and learn from, they set their sights on the future from within the endless prowling possibilities of void’s dark dawn.
Let these ancient practices deepen your own connectedness to nature and the rhythms of the earth and cosmos, simply by meditating on these traditions. Truth always has it’s own ways of touching our hearts and affecting our lives. Allow the enchanting depths of this time of year to envelop your heart and mind, reminding you of your own eternal connection to all of existence, your ancestors and the divine.
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