Samhain - Knowledge, Transformation & Heritage

Samhain began as a Celtic tradition. Thought to translate as ‘Summer’s end’, it was a time of transhumance, slaughter and feasting for the third and final harvest festival. Widely observed in Britain, and known as Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man. Samhain itself is said to begin on the 31st October and end at sunset on the 1st November but many celebrate the mid-point between autumn equinox and winter solstice, which is usually around the 6th / 7th November, however, Samhain has a complex history and overtime has developed to incorporate many practices.

It is thought the Aztec peoples celebrated the dead with Mictecacihuafl (lady of the dead). 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. These customs have lead to a modern three day holiday celebrated with a mix of Catholic, Roman, Spanish and Celtic traditions, popularised as Devil’s Night in America and Day of the Dead, throughout South America. In many cases graves are decorated with flowers, with prayer services and lit with candles while feasting and celebration occurs.

In the Celtic tradition, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered, animals slaughtered and food preserved for the Winter days by fermenting and drying. After the harvest work was complete, the celebrants joined in community celebrations, lighting fires which mimicked the sun for protection and cleansing. 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. A dumb supper would be consumed with an extra place set at the table, as it was thought that ancestors would revisit their homes seeking 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 come in and eat cakes that had been left for them, in hope of good crops for the following year.

The fiery, masculine energy of Summer moves inward at this time and nature begins to die 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, with visiting ancestors and the peoples wanting to appease the spirits.

Lanterns are commonly lit from pumpkins or turnips on Samhain, likely stemming from the common fable of Jack-o-lantern - a naughty lad called Jack was found too stingy to enter Heaven and not able to enter Hell due to playing tricks on the Devil, the Devil kept his word and didn’t take his soul but instead Jack was condemned to walk the Earth with a lantern ever since.

Dressing up likely originated from villagers disguising themselves in costumes made of animals skin to drive away spirits (or hide from them). Performances were often put on in exchange for food and drink, likely an early form of trick-or-treating. Some texts suggest that poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Later records suggest that a man would wear a sheet and carry a horse skill expecting food from the farmers in return for good fortune.

Samhain and the coming weeks is a time where energy slows, the Earth dies and energy turns inward. It is a time where we acknowledge that death is an important part of our life cycle.

It is time to work on our inner-self. We should observe what needs to ‘die’ or be transformed in us, what we need to let go of in order to bring new growth. It is a time to consider mystery and revel in the darkness, and relax and nurtures this new feminine, Winter energy. It is time to sleep, eat nourishing warm goods, and enjoy dreamtime!

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 sweep out old leaves, making the home clean for celebrations but they were also used symbolically - a way to clear out old energy to make space for the new! If you have a broomstick brush out old energy clockwise out of the house. 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 tie them together with some string to make a broom!

  • Clean all the windows and windowsills and set up a candle in each window (safely) ready to invite your ancestors in later on in the evening, black or white candles are suitable. You might like to decorate the windows with items or photographs of your past loved ones, to let them know you are thinking of them.

  • I love to decorate my altar and home with Samhain colours. The colours of this time are black for transformation and protection, orange for the vitality of life and purple for wisdom, insight and inspiration. Eastern religions view death as a celebration and new life; I like this view and usually use white flowers to decorate my home. You might also like to decorate your altar with a cauldron which is a symbol of the container of life - it holds life, death and allows for transformation. Acorns from the mighty oak tree bring wisdom and strength too.

  • Why not make some sweets, ready to give away from trick or treating, bake some bread or even a pumpkin pie?

  • Samhain holds a strong energy of heritage and community. It is a great time to make a visit to see an old relative, friend or loved one and share stories. Why not take some of the pumpkin pie or other goodies that you have made to cheer them up, as much as death brings transformation the thought of a coming Winter can be stressful for many.

  • I love the stillness of All Saints Day, and like to get myself out in Nature. The changing colours of the leaves are comforting to know you must leave situations behind and say goodbye to those you love, as life is cyclic. Take a thoughtful walk and day dream… Take yourself off on a nature walk to appreciate the temporary energy of life, witness the falling leaves and changing colours. If you take a picnic of some kind and enjoy create some Fall Art - use the coloured leaves to make a mandala! It is a great way to quieten your mind and listen to what nature has to tell you.

  • I usually try to find some water as the Celtic tree for this period is the reed! It was considered protective and a great insulator so it was often used for thatching roofs. Mats were often woven from reeds too, so considered protective and cleansing. Reeds were often made into charms to protect from evil. The reed moon was a time for divination and scrying. It can be useful to stare at the water and see if you get signs of images, what to the refections of the reeds have to tell you? It is said that the reed can find the very core of any problem, striping every layer of a story.

  • As Samhain is all about transformation don’t forget to transform yourself, what about a new outfit or a new hair cut? Or simply practice some self-care.

  • 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?

  • Learn the Manx reel step and have a dance as many danced through the streets with your moot (turnip lantern)!

  • Why not make a Samhain circle with your friends. Light a candle in the middle of the table and take it in turns in your circle to mention someone that has passed and why you love that person. Switch off the light and then begin by saying "We welcome our loved ones in spirit we honour your presence and send love” Then take it in turns to state a loved one and why you loved them. Keep going round from person to person until everyone has welcome their departed. When all is complete, give thanks, and allow the candles to burn to completion.

  • Hold a Dumb Supper. Consider making a feast for family, friends or simply yourself and your ancestors. You could include apples, pumpkin, potatoes, parsnips, squashes, nuts and seeds or fermented foods or fish. But, make a place for an ancestor at the table, complete with their own dinner (you will leave this outside the home as an. Offering afterwards). A dump supper is held in silence which allows the spirits to communicate! At your Samhain feast, consider laying an extra place for them to join you at the table - cook and eat their favourite dishes, talk about them - re-member them, bring them closer.

  • It doesn’t all need to be solemn either. So maybe a little Mulled wine, mead, or cider? Once it is dark I love lighting all the windows in the home up (safely of course). I like to leave a window open so the ancestors can come in. But 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.

  • 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! Hazelnuts were roasted by a fire. Two would be roasted. One for the person roasting and a second nut for their desired love which they thought about. If the nuts jumped away from each other it was not to be, but if they roasted soundly it was considered to be a good potential marriage! Why not make some cake, eat in in silence 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, egg whites were 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 no one chokes!) Or even apple bobbing? Young unmarried people 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!

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

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

  • On all Saint’s Day I like to get myself outside for a lovely walk. Collect some pine cones on your adventures as you can use them to help feed the birds throughout Winter. Simply melt some suet and seeds and dip the cones in them and create a loop to hang them from the trees!

  • Rest & gentle care is important over this time. It is time to birth new dreams from the coming darkness. Nature looks like she is dying, but really she is resting, ready to burst again in Spring. 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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