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Samhain - Knowledge, Transformation & Heritage

Updated: Oct 31, 2023


Samhain began as a Celtic tradition, the third and final of our harvest festivals. Translating as ‘summer’s end’, it was a time of transhumance, slaughter and feasting, marking the end of Summer and the transition into Winter.


Samhain itself is said to begin on the 31st October and ends at sunset on the 1st November. Many however celebrate the mid-point between autumn equinox and winter solstice, which is usually around the 6th and 7th November. Samhain has a complex history and overtime has developed to incorporate many practices, including Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man.


In Aztec mythology the peoples of Mexico honoured their dead through Mictecacihuafl (Lady of the Dead), who resided in the underworld. This practice likely developed into the Day of the Dead, celebrated throughout South America, where graves are decorated with flowers prayer services, candles, feating and celebration. The Romans celebrated Feralia to honour their dead too, as well as the harvest Goddess Pomona. In the 11th century All Saints’ (1st Nov) and All Souls’ day (2nd Nov) was established in the Catholic church. Many of the traditional pagan practices were adopted in 19th-century America due to Irish immigrants venturing across the ocean, now popularised as Devil’s Night in America. These customs have lead to a modern three day holiday celebrated with a mix of Catholic, Roman, Spanish and Celtic traditions.


In the Celtic tradition, hearth fires were lit on the eve of Samhain and left to burn out while the final harvest was gathered, the animals were slaughtered, and food was preserved by fermenting and drying for the winter days ahead. Fires were lit in the fields which mimicked the sun for protection; the embers would be taken back to the houses to light their own fires, banishing evil and bringing in new energy; torches were carried around houses and fields to protect them. After the harvest work was complete, the celebrants joined in community celebrations. A dumb supper would be consumed, and always with an extra place set at the table so their ancestors could revisit their homes and enjoy the hospitality. Children would play games to entertain the dead, while traditional tales, songs, dance and divination would be performed! That night, doors and windows would be left open for the dead to venture in and out, and enjoy the cakes that had been left for them - with the hope of good crops the following year.


The fiery, masculine energy of summer begins to move inward at the time of Samhain and the fertile earth dies away. It is likely that the coming cold and darkness, and in some cases, with elements of sacrifice, people were faced with the reality of death and these celebrations developed as a way to embrace death and wanting to appease spirits - many of which are still practiced today.


Lanterns are still commonly lit from pumpkins or turnips on this day, stemming from the common fable of Jack-o-lantern. Jack was a naughty lad who was found too stingy to enter heaven and not able to enter hell due to playing tricks on the Devil. At the end of the story the devil keeps his word, takes his soul where Jack was condemned to roam the earth with a lantern ever since!


Dressing up likely originated from villagers disguising themselves in costumes made of animal skin to drive away spirits (or hide from them). Villagers often performed for food and drink, likely an early form of trick-or-treating. Some texts suggest that the poor would visit wealthy families to receive soul cake pastries in exchange for prayers of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Later records suggest that a man would wear a sheet and carry a horse skull expecting food from the farmers in return for good fortune.


Traditions aside, Samhain (and the coming weeks) is a time where energy moves downward and inward. It is a time to acknowledge that death is an important part of our life cycle, no matter how hard it can be to accept. Leaves fall from the trees, nature lets go of what is no longer needed, and stores energy with latent potential until it is to rise in Spring once again.


It is a time to work on our inner self. What needs to 'die' or be transformed in our lives so that we can create new growth?


Revel in the darkness. Delve into dreamtime. Relax as nature nurtures a new feminine. Sleep, eat nourishing foods, be with yourself.

Ways to Reflect on Samhain

I always start Samhain celebrations off with a good clean on the morning of the 31st. Broomsticks were a used to make the home clean for celebrations. They were also used symbolically, as a way to clear out of old energy and make space for the new! If you have a broomstick then brush out old energy out of the house in a clockwise motion. Traditionally Birch leaves and twigs were used to make brooms as the tree is associated with renewal. If you don’t have a broomstick why not go for a morning walk and gather some twigs and make your own broom?


Clean all your windows and windowsills as your ancestors will be visiting. I light up a candle in each window (do this safely) so my ancestors can be invited in. You can use any colour candles, but usually you use black or white ones. You might like to decorate the windows with items or photographs of your past loved ones and show them you are thinking of them.


I love to decorate my altar and home with Samhain colours. The colours of this time are: black (transformation and protection), orange (the vital life force)) and purple (wisdom, insight and inspiration). Eastern religions view death as a celebration and so in many cases the colour white is prominent. I use white flowers to decorate my home personally.


You might also like to decorate your altar with a cauldron as it is a symbol of the container of life - it holds life, death and allows for transformation. Perhaps even add an acorn or two from the mighty oak tree which symbolises wisdom and strength.


Make a Samhain circle with your group. Light a candle in the middle of the table and take it in turns to mention someone that has passed, and why you loved that person. Switch off the light and begin by saying "We welcome our loved ones in spirit, we honour your presence and send love” Then take it in turns to speak. Keep going from person to person until everyone has welcome their departed. When all is complete, give thanks, and allow the candles to burn to completion.


Then enjoy a dumb supper. Consider making a feast for family, friends or even just yourself and your ancestors. You could include apples, pumpkin, potatoes, parsnips, squashes, nuts and seeds, fermented foods or fish. Leave a place at the table for an ancestor and make them a little dinner too (you will leave this outside the home as an offering afterwards). A dump supper is held in silence which allows the spirits to communicate!


Afterwards talk about them, remember them to bring them closer. It doesn’t all need to be solemn either! Enjoy some mulled wine, mead, or cider around a fire. Or light up the windows of your home. I switch off all electricity and it is the perfect time for celebration. Celebration with live music, divination or story telling! You can’t beat having a good jam by candlelight and telling fun stories of those that have passed. Or even go out and dance your way home with the Manx reel step!


At midnight why not write messages to the spirits and release them by burning the paper in a candle flame. Write down all your wishes and those that you wish to leave behind and then burn them in a flame of the candle, bury the ashes outside the home so they ancestors can hear your prayers.


Take offerings of food outside to appease the nature spirits, a little cake and clean water is suggested! Why not leave an offering for pets that have passed, in this case you can leave a little dog food, or cat food.


Divining


If you are a single maiden, fear not! Divining is a big part of Samhain history, often centred around marriage. Apples were peeled into one long strip before being tossed over the should, the shape it formed was supposed to be the first letter of your future spouse! Apple bobbing? The young and unmarried would bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string on a line; the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to marry. Or you could roast hazelnuts by a fire - you roast two nuts, for the person roasting and one for their desired love. Think about your future love while roasting... if the nuts jump away from each other it was not to be - but if they roast soundly it is considered to be a good potential marriage. If cake is more your thing... then eat a piece in silence while thinking about a possible lover and then walk backwards into bed; traditionally maidens used to do this expecting to see their future husband in their dreams! ;)


If you are in a group it can be a little bit of fun to do some divining! Like tea-leaves, or egg whites can be dropped into water and the shape was interpreted into a meaning. Or if you are having guests you could hide items in food, such as rings or coins, representing marriage or money like our ancestors used too (just remember to tell people so that there are no trips to A&E).


Over this period it can be nice to consider others as Samhain holds a strong energy of heritage and community. Why not make that visit to see an old relative, friend or loved one and share stories while their light shines?


I love the stillness of All Saints Day and like to get myself out in nature. The changing colours of the leaves are comforting, reminding us it is ok to let old situations that no longer serve us go. Be thoughtful and aware, just be. Appreciate the temporary, cyclical energy of life and the changing colours. If you take a picnic or want to be more active, why not make create some leaf mandalas with the fallen coloured leaves; it is a good form of meditation to quite your mind so you can hear what nature has to tell you. You could also collect some pine cones on your adventures as you can use them to help feed the birds throughout the wintertime. Simply melt some suet and seeds and dip the cones in the, add a little loop to hang them from the trees!


All months have a Celtic tree. This period is the reed, so I like to hunt out a lake or water of some kind. The reed is a great insulator and used for thatching roofs or making mats or even charms - the key here is a symbolism of protection. Scrying under the moon of the reed moon can help you find the very core of the problem, with the stripping of every lie that you tell yourself.


Make time to transform yourself! A new outfit? A new haircut? Or just some self care and making time for yourself. The early nights are a great way to make new practices more routine.


For the crystal lovers out there this is a great time for divination. Crystals to work with moonstone, obsidian, black tourmaline, onyx, carnelian and amethyst are some nice crystals to work with. Light a candle and sit with the crystals - what wisdom do they have to share with you?


Consider some dreamwork. There are lots of mediations that you can do on YouTube. Pop an Amethyst crystal under pillow. Simply ask for protection for your journey, set your intentions and then dream away in a nice cosy, warm bed. What did the universe tell you in your sleep time? Did any ancestors visit you?


Rest & gentle care is important during this time. It is time to birth new dreams from the coming darkness. Nature looks like she is dying, but really she is resting. Have a cleansing bath in Epsom salts and then enjoy some deep refection time. Light candles and dedicate a specific intention. Sit and meditate into the flame until you receive an answer. I make plans for the Winter and work out what it is I need to let go of our new plans that I need to make, journal them so you do not forget. You might even like to do some runes or tarot.


The more spiritually inclined amongst us may also see this as a time for deeply communing with their deities and prefer to be alone and solemn, in this case often Hecate, Hermes (Greek) Anubis (Egyptian) Aurora Borealis (Inuits), Shiva (Hindu) Azrael (Islam) are sometimes called upon.


Whatever you do, do it with a good heart, ask for protection and send love to all those that need it, even in the spirit world with respect. Whilst Samhain has become a ‘fun’ festival, its roots are quite dark and many suffered much pain. Have a lovely reflective one!

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