Samhain (pronounced 'Sow-en' or 'Sah-wen') is a special holiday in the pagan wheel of the year, and is of course lovingly known in popular culture as Halloween or All Hallows Eve. It marks the first sign of winter and is considered to be the time of the year when the veil is thinnest between our natural world and the spiritual realm.
In ancient traditions, on this day it was believed that our ancestors could return to visit and give help and advice to the living. People would light candles in hollowed-out turnips, placing them on roads and doorsteps to guide the spirits home and leave food out as an offering, as a gift of life. For many modern pagans, Samhain is considered to be their New Year celebration, and understandably this can seem strange as the days are still getting colder and darker. Yet for pagans, it's recognized that the journey into the dark is rich with change and hope, an opportunity for restoration in the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The symbol of the Triple Goddess with the waxing, full and waning moons represents this rich worldview and the phases of womanhood through the Maiden, Mother and Crone.
Death is seen as a natural part of the life cycle and most pagans believe that while our bodies return to the Earth to sustain new life, our souls live on in another reincarnation or spiritual dimension. It's acknowledged that without death, there is no room for change, growth or something new to be born, and so Samhain is a time to prepare for the coming darkness and to honour the Earth's dark gifts. Traditionally it marks a shift from the harvesting of summer's bounty to hunting and the slaughter of animals to ensure food supplies through the depths of winter, earning the October Full Moon the name, Hunter's Moon or Blood Moon.
Samhain is also a special time to honour our ancestors and all those who have walked before us, providing us with the opportunities we have today. Without them, we wouldn't be here and we express our gratitude for every step of their journey. Ancestors don't necessarily have to be blood relatives, they can be important role models, teachers or mentors in your life, ancestors of land and place who tended the very ground we walk on, or they can even be groups or collectives such as all those who kept magical or spiritual traditions alive to this day.
Tomorrow evening I'll be attending the Night for All Souls candle lit procession at Mountain View Ceremony. Here are some ritual ideas for your Samhain celebrations:
- Create an altar dedicated to your ancestors, sort through old family photos and recall stories about them as you place them on the altar. Even better, invite a group over and hear each other's stories one by one.
- Meditate and visualize individual ancestors. Thank them for the different gifts or qualities that you've inherited from them. Ask for blessings for the new year and sit quietly to see if they have a message for you.
- Hold a dinner with family and friends, leave a plate of offerings on the altar. Feast and share your favourite memories about your ancestors, and reflect on who they were, where they came from and how well you knew them, if at all.
- Visit your local cemetery and tend the graves of loved ones, give a gift of flowers or something beautiful as a token of your appreciation. If you don't have anyone in particular to visit, just look around at the collective history or help beautify by removing anything that shouldn't be there.
- Get to know your own heritage and delve into your family tree through a website such as www.ancestry.ca.
- Join the mainstream and carve out a pumpkin, but be more intentional as you light the candle in memory of your ancestors.