Samhain -- Halloween -- is more closely associated with modern Paganism than any other holiday. It has preserved many Pagan customs and more have grown up
around it in Christian days. Indeed, unlike most Pagan occasions there are almost too many customs to be integrate them all easily.
The Irish name Samhain, pronounced "Sowen" (the Scottish Gaelic is "Samhuin"), has been adopted by most American Neo-Pagans. The medieval Irish Cormacís
Glossary explains its meaning as "summer's end," and that is its religious meaning among modern Pagans. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on this etymology,
however. One recent suggestion is that it means "summer's beginning" -- the summer of the Underworld, where the seasons are the opposite of ours. What is
beyond doubt is that this day that begins the cold part of the year has "summer" in its name.
This is a good place to point out an error found in many books on Samhain that has unfortunately recently made its way into the Pagan community. "Samhain"
is not the name of a Celtic God of the Dead (several recent books said "Aryan"). Celtic Gods are not as easily categorized as Graeco-Roman, and if the Celts
had a God of the Dead it is unlikely that we will ever be sure who he was. But there was no God named "Samhain", or "Samana" as it is sometimes given. This
may have arisen from a confusion with "Shamana," a title of Yama, the Vedic God of the dead. This name means "Settler," and is not connected in any way with
"Samhain" properly refers to the daylight portion of the festival, to Nov. 1st. The night of Oct. 31st goes by a number of names -- Oiche na Sprideanna
(Spirit Night), Oiche Shamhna (Samhain Eve), Puca Night. It is a night of magic, when fairies and ghosts are about, and the puca spits on the blackberries,
making them unfit to eat.
Among the Celts, as among the Hebrews and many others, the day began at sunset, with the dark time. The Celtic year also began with the dark -- with
Samhain. Just as a plant is born from the dark below the ground, so too the year comes from the dark time. Samhain is the Celtic New Year's Day, then. If
you work in a system with a different New Year's Day, you might consider transferring some of these customs to that day. For instance, Norse customs and
myths surrounding the winter solstice are very similar to those surrounding Samhain. Roman customs of late February are similar as well, as the Romans were
preparing for the old New Year in March.
The overwhelming cultural importance of the secular calendar has decreased the importance of the New Year aspect of Samhain for most Neo-Pagans. But if
Samhain does not end the calendar year for us, it still marks the end of the year's growth. Not only does the world start to die, but it no longer grows to
replace death. This is the end of the farmer's year. Cattle and sheep are brought in from the far pastures, winter wheat is already planted, wood is
Those of use who do not farm or even garden can use this time to wind up other things in our lives. For instance, debts can be paid if possible, to close
the year so that a new one can begin free from connections to the old. Are there jobs around the house that you've been meaning to get to? Do them now, and
free yourself to look forward instead of back.
Samhain eve is the night of death, when the fairy mounds open and the dead and the old Gods walk the earth. Gifts of food and drink are left out for them,
either in appeasement or greeting. It is the night when the veil is thin between our world and that of Gods and spirits, and anyone may pass through either
Many Samhain customs are designed to protect the home from the spirits or the fairies. As Pagans we welcome the spirits and fairies, and so we do not keep
some of these customs. Some of them we reinterpret. The jack-o-lantern, far from scaring off spirits, may be seen as evidence of them in our midst.
It says in "The Wooing of Etain" that among the Irish Samhain was a day of peace, when no one could take arms against another. This is a characteristic law
of tribal assemblies, and indeed, there is a slight possibility that "Samhain" means "assembly." Samhain is the great assembly day. If you are part of a
Pagan group, gather them together for Samhain; if your extended family is Pagan, do likewise. If you have no group with which to assemble, do not worry.
The spirits of your ancestors will gather with you. This is one time when Pagans do not stand alone.
In ancient Ireland, Samhain was actually part of a week long celebration, divided into three parts: the three days before it, the day itself, and the three
days after it. The feast was long and well-celebrated.
In remembrance of this, your celebration should extend for at least three days. That is why there are three rituals given here. Unlike the other festivals,
where several rituals are provided to give a choice, all three of these are meant to be performed, one on each of three days. It is best to perform them on
consecutive days, but depending on local custom, you may have to reschedule one of the rituals so as not to conflict with trick or treating.
The origin of trick or treating has been the subject of a lot of speculation, some of it based on evidence and some not. I would not like to be the one more
person saying "this is how it began." I don't think we can know for sure.
What we can know is that everywhere in the ancient world the days before New Year's and feasts of the dead were days of ritual chaos. The world dissolved,
the cosmos disintegrated, and the human community allowed itself to fall apart as well. There were celebrations with costume wearing, general lawlessness,
children's revolts, and trick or treating. The meaning seems to have been that with the old year dying and the new one not yet begun the old rules are dead
and new ones not yet in place. It is a time for both fear and merry-making. Pre-Ash Wednesday customs are probably the best known: Mardi Gras, Fasching,
We know that in the British Isles there are many customs associated with particular days that involve going from door to door collecting goodies: Pace
Egging, Guy Fawkes, caroling, and, in areas influenced by Gaels (or, in modern times, by Americans), Halloween. These customs died out in America, but the
influx of Irish during the Potato Famine was probably what revived Halloween. This is conjecture, but the traditions are old and probably pre-Christian.
Secular Halloween customs are thus quite appropriate. Take part in them with a good conscience. As well as taking part in the local seasonal festivals,
something that any self-respecting Pagan should be glad to do, and as well as giving your children the chance to feel that they are not that different from
other children (something I'm sure most parents are glad to be able to do), you will be observing the Festival of the Death of the Year in traditional
fashion. Go for it.
After the dissolution to chaos comes the recreation of the world. This is the origin of the belief in many parts of the world that what happens on New
Year's sets the pattern for rest of the year. One offshoot of this belief is the custom of practicing divination on days like this. The pattern of a thing
is set at its beginning, so the year's pattern can be seen or altered by divination on Samhain.
Each of the three rituals deals with a different aspect of the day. First there is the seasonal aspect. This is the time of the year when things are dying.
Even the plants that will survive the winter are shutting down and shedding unnecessary parts. Many animals, especially insects and spiders, don't survive
the winter. The species overwinter as eggs or larvae.
In a pre-electricity culture even some of the domestic animals would be killed. There was only so much food and usually not all of the herds could be kept
in good health until spring. As well as being carefully preserved for the winter, some of the food was used for a feast, not unlike the American
Thanksgiving. On Martinmas (Nov. 11th, and thus Halloween in the old Julian calendar) farmers in Ireland killed an animal and sprinkled the blood on the
threshold and the four corners for protection. The meat was shared with the poor.
Next there is the placating of the spirits of the animals eaten during the year. This is a recognition that we live by killing. Being a vegetarian is no
way out of this, either. Life is life, and even vegetarians are responsible for death. In hunting cultures it is common to placate the spirits of the dead
animals. This is partly to ensure their return and that they will continue to cooperate in the business of living and dying. But at least part of it is a
recognition that the animals too have a life that people have to take, and a spirit that deserves respect.
Third, there is the honoring of ancestors. Samhain is the night when the distinction between this world and the next is thin. Perhaps the fear of going out
on this night arose not so much from concern about running into spirits of the dead as fear of crossing over into the Otherworld oneself.
A fourth aspect is the facing of personal mortality. This hardly seems appropriate for a gathering with children, however, but it is certain to be part of
any meeting of adults or individual rites that may be held during this time. The most effective way of scheduling these rituals would be to observe them
in the order given here -- plants, animals, people. This brings the message of Samhain closer to us personally each night. It should reach its crescendo on
the night of Samhain itself, with only grave visits left. Your scheduling may have to be different, but in any case the honoring of ancestors is best left
for the night of Samhain itself.
On one or more of the days of observance it is appropriate to fast, except for the ritual itself. This is a custom often associated with New Year's days, as
well as with preparations to meet with spirits. It fits in also with the coming of the hard times of winter, when in a subsistence culture going without
food might be a necessity. Since the center part of each day's observance is a meal, fasting will also give greater emphasis to the ritual. If your family
decides to fast, limit the fasting to healthy non-pregnant adults. Taking on the fast will be one of the responsibilities shared by those who have come of
age. The money saved by fasting should be given to charity.
Pagans spend so much energy thinking about nature that it would be all too easy to forget about the human community. So on Samhain it is fitting to make a
special act of charity. It has always been a day for giving, one where it is not proper to turn the stranger from your door (perhaps another theory of the
origin of trick or treating. Samhain is the perfect day to ask for gifts; they will not be refused.) It is the end of harvest, when our storehouses are
full and we can certainly spare some of our goods. We call to the ancestors and say, "Thank you for what you have done for us," and they say, "So, and what
have you done for each other? And what have you done for your descendants?" If we are to face them without shame we must have an answer.
This is a time to clean your house extra well. You will be inviting the ancestors in, and simple politeness requires a clean house. But further, this is
the new year: you should be able to face it with as little baggage from the old year as possible. In the same vein, wear new clothes for the rituals,
especially for the night of the ancestors.
On the first day of the three, set up an extra table at one end of your kitchen or dining room table. Any size will do as long as it is at least as high as
the other one (and preferably higher). This will serve as your Samhain altar. It will remain throughout the festival, decorated differently for each of the
three days. Ordinarily your table serves as your altar, but for this special day a special altar is in order.
Decorations: Symbols of fall, harvest, and death, such as sickles, scythes, jack-o-lanterns, skulls, skeletons, grave rubbings, root vegetables, squashes,
Food and drink: Dark food and foods that keep over the winter. Nuts, blackberries, applecakes, applesauce, roots, squashes, beef, pork, dark bread, mulled
cider or wine.
Traditions to raid: All Saints Day (Nov. 1), All Souls Day (Nov. 2), and Martinmas (Nov. 11) (European); Parentalia (Feb. 13-22), Fevalia (Feb. 21), and
Lemuralia (May 9, 11, and 15) (Roman); Bon (Aug. 13-15) (Japanese); Yom Kippur, Passover (Jewish, dates vary); Memorial Day, New Year's Eve.
The Night of Harvest's End
Prepare a meal that emphasizes vegetables and fruit. Include a heavy dark bread, a dark rye or pumpernickel, unsliced. This will be eaten from each night,
so make sure there is some left over until the last night. Leave it on the altar for all three nights.
When the food is ready and the table set, gather the family together about it. After establishing sacred time, an adult says:
This is the first night of Samhain,
Summer is over and winter is upon us,
the time to enjoy what our summer's work has earned us
and the time to prepare for summer's return.
Blessed be winter, this sacred time of the year.
Go out to your garden. Stand right in the middle of it, facing west, the direction of the dying sun and of the journey made by the dead. Make one last
offering to the spirits of the garden (beer or wine are appropriate) and say:
We have planted
We have weeded
We have harvested
We have watched the garden
and helped it grow
and now its end has come.
This would be a good point for the children to join in, thinking of things that have been done to help the garden and adding them to the list. If they have
their own garden, they must perform this part of the ritual by themselves in that garden.
Then put the garden to sleep for the winter. Make the final harvest and pile the results in bowls. Pull up all the plants and haul them to your compost
heap. Lay down mulch and compost. Then, from some of the remains of the plants make a figure of a man. This will be your image of Winter. He will rule
over your household until May Day.
To make the figure, make two bundles of stalks, one slightly thinner than the other but both the same length. The thinner bundle will be the arms. Be sure
to include some of each plant. With a long piece of string, tie the large bundle together about one fourth of the way from one end. (Figure 3a.) This will be the head end. Separate the bundle slightly below the string and insert the smaller bundle. Wrap the string diagonally
across and around to hold the arms in place (3b). Tie it off, leaving plenty of extra string. Spread the lower portion of the large bundle apart to form
the legs. Run the string down through the dividing point, back up to one arm, down to the dividing point again, and back up to the other arm (3c). Pull the
string tight to keep the legs divided and tie it off. You may also tie the ends of the bundles together if you wish. We like to keep ours rough, but you
may make yours it as elaborate as you care to.
If you grow corn your figure of Winter can be quite large. With different plants, you may need to make a smaller one. One and a half feet to two feet is a
Put Winter in the north, the direction of dark, cold, and death. Face it and say:
If you don't have a garden you can find weeds along the road or in a vacant lot and make your figure of Winter out of them. Use dead and dry weeds,
especially those with seeds in them. The first year my family did this ritual, we didn't have a garden, so we used dried grass from a nearby vacant lot.
You can also make the figure from wheat stalks, which can be bought in craft supply stores, or corn shocks, which can be bought in many garden stores for
decorations at this time of year. In this case, you will also need bowls of fruits and vegetables, preferably from local farms.
Bring Winter into the house with ceremony and place him at the table. Prop him to make him stand at his own place, with his own plate. The string that ties
him together can be slipped over the top of a wine bottle to hold him up. Put your bowls of fruit and vegetables in front of him. Put bits of your food on
Winter's plate as you eat, serving him first. Afterward leave the food out for the spirits of the wild or of the garden.
Keep Winter in a place of honor all winter until Beltane. If it is safe you could put him in the garden on a pole in the north to watch over the garden for
the winter. If you do this, put the offerings of food in front of him.
This is the night for traditional Halloween games such as bobbing for apples or trying to eat donuts that are suspended on strings.
The Night of the Animal Spirits
If you keep any animals (including pets), no one may eat dinner until they are fed. Leave out food for wild animals as well.
Among the food include a soup containing a little bit of every food animal eaten during the year. Use any soup recipe with small pieces of the other animals
added. Beef works well as the base, as its strong flavor is not easily overpowered by other meats. It may be difficult to include every type of animal;
traditionally beef stands for all animals, so it can be used by itself alone. If you are vegetarian, make a soup using as many plants as possible and adapt
the ritual accordingly. When everything is ready, establish sacred time. Then an adult says:
This is the second night of Samhain,
the Night of the Animal Spirits.
This is the night when we thank the animals who have died for us.
Blessed be the eaters
Blessed be the eaten
Blessed be the eating
Blessed be the being eaten
Blessed be life
Blessed be death.
The other family members repeat each of the "Blessed be's." Then an adult says:
This is the great secret of life:
That it feeds on death
and they are close twins.
The wheel is always turning.
The spirits of the animals are here,
of all that we have eaten.
They have played their part in the turning of the wheel
so tonight we do them honor.
All: Thank you.
Adult: Thank you.
All: Thank you.
Adult: Thank you.
All: Thank you.
Adult: Thank you, animal spirits;
we will not forget your gifts.
Serve the soup. Then eat your dinner, taking special care to taste and enjoy your food. Do not rush through the meal. That would be disrespectful to the
animal spirits. Either make sure all leftovers are eaten or leave some out for the spirits. Whatever you do, don't waste any.
The Night of Remembering
The ancestors have been often ignored by Neo-Pagans. Perhaps it's that we have been enraptured by the Celts and have associated ancestor religion with
Africa, China, and Japan. Or maybe it's because so many of us have seen our path as breaking away from our family's religion. Or maybe it's just that Wicca
lacks an emphasis on the ancestors. It is indeed ironic that those of those who seek to revive the ways of our ancestors have thought so rarely of the Way
of the Ancestors.
But the ancestors are who we are. Their genes live in us, their culture shapes our days, their signs are all around us. The land itself speaks of them.
And on the night of Samhain itself it is only right that we should speak of them as well. Speak, and remember. For what the ancestors desire most of all,
and what we need most to do, is to remember them.
The meal on this night should include pork, the sacred feast animal of Northern Europe and food of the dead; apples, fruit of the tree that grows in the
Otherworld; and the dark bread that has been on the table for the first two nights.
Decorate the room with symbols of your ancestors. These can include:
Flags, postcards, foods, statues, books, photographs, or other items from the countries of your ancestors.
Family heirlooms. These need not be anything fancy. A letter, a piece of clothing, a book -- anything from any ancestor. One of my favorite heirlooms is a
hammer my grandfather used.
Photographs of ancestors.
Rubbings or photographs of gravestones
This is a case where a cluttered altar is called for. Many sources have poured themselves into us and the result is a complicated culture filled with
complicated people. Make your altar just as complicated. For tools, jewelry, and clothes raid your heirlooms and the traditions of your ancestors'
Put images of your ancestors on the altar. If your household guardians are figures of your ancestors you will of course use them. If not, you could use
masks made just for this rite, jack-o-lanterns, or ethnic symbols. Set a place for them in front of their images. Also put on the altar a candle for each
relative who has died since last Samhain, plus an extra candle for all of your other ancestors. These candles can also be put in the window, to show the
spirits the way to your home.
The oldest adult present presides this night.
Dress in dark clothes. This is the night of the Underworld, the Nightworld. Ordinarily we live in the day world, but this night we enter the world of the
dark. The night world is the world of mystery, just like the world of death is. We cannot see what comes to us out of the dark.
Put the candles for the dead in front of the ancestral images. As you light each one that is being lit for a specific person, say that person's name. These
candles should be lit by whomever in the family was closest to the person. After the candles are lit, the oldest adult says:
Tonight is the last night of Samhain, the Night of Remembering.
It is the feast of dark bread.
It is the feast of apples.
It is the feast of pork.
On this night
we welcome the spirits of our ancestors.
On this night
we welcome you to our house.
We share our meal with you who have given us so much.
Put a bit of every food at the meal on the ancestors' plate as it is served, before serving any family members.
After the meal, clear the dinner dishes, except for the place of the ancestors. Put an apple, a pomegranate, a sharp knife, and a cup of dark wine or cider
on the table. The wine or cider can be served mulled but cold by adding cloves and cinnamon sticks and soaking overnight. Stir or shake to mix the flavors
before pouring. Pass the cup around. It may go either counter-clockwise (thereby going down to death) or from youngest to oldest (thereby approaching the
ancestors.) Whichever way it goes, have it end up at the place of the ancestors.
As each person receives the cup she recites her genealogy, women and girls in the female line and men and boys in the male line. Say:
I am ( ), daughter of ( ), daughter of ( ).
Go as far back as you know or as you wish. Include at least one ancestor who is dead. If you do not know the names of your ancestors, at the point that the
line disappears say, "daughter of a woman unknown." After each person does this, she drinks a toast in the direction of the place of the ancestors. When
everyone has spoken and the drink and food are at the place of the ancestors, someone says:
We offer the cup of fellowship to the ancestors:
They are dead but not gone.
We are all one people and tonight we eat and drink together once more.
Someone else says:
We are not the first
We will not be the last
We are not the river's source
nor are we its end.
Life flows on from the ancestors
through us and beyond.
Daily we are carried along as life streams on.
Tonight we turn and look upstream
and honor our source
before turning again and plunging once more into life.
Tonight we remember our ancestors:
Gone but remembered
Left but revered
Away but near our hearts.
That which is remembered is still alive.
Those we remember are with us still.
We speak their names and remember.
Then remember, saying their names. After each name, tell what you know about that person. If anyone has died since last Samhain, name them first. It is all
right to call out the names of friends as well as family. We are one people.
There are many ancestors you will not know, of course. Call them by what you do know; where they came from, or what their trade was, or their relationship
with you. There are many of mine of whom I know nothing except a name. That isn't really much, but it is enough.
Speak their names and remember them. When there are no more to remember, say:
Ancestors going back into the darkness,
forgotten by history,
your lives unrecorded:
You who are unknown to us but who made us ourselves.
Don't be afraid:
You are not forgotten.
We remember you.
And everyone says:
We remember you.
Then tell any of your people's stories that haven't yet been told. Tell stories of ancestors who have died. Tell the old myths of your people. Recite the
genealogies. And when the stories have died away, sit in silence and remember. Don't be afraid to cry. Your tears will be an offering to them. Don't be
ashamed not to cry. The remembering may bring you comfort without the need to cry.
When the remembering has died away, someone says:
Every day we will remember and every night when we sleep.
We will always remember and we will never forget.
These are our people and we remember them.
If you have any messages you wish sent to your ancestors, especially ones you don't wish to say out loud, write them down on a piece of paper. Put the paper
with incense on a burning piece of charcoal, or burn them in the flames of the candles of the ancestors. The smoke will take your messages to the ancestors
When all the talk is done and all the messages sent, the oldest adult says:
The table of remembering is over but the Night of Remembering goes on.
But there is one thing more we still have to do.
For three days we have spoken of death:
of plants, of animals, of our ancestors.
But our way is life.
He picks up the pomegranate and says:
This is a fruit of life
It is filled with many seeds
But it was just these seeds that kept Persephone in the land of the dead.
So what does this fruit say to us?
It is life, whose shadow is death.
He cuts it open. Then he holds up the apple and says:
This is a fruit of death
It grows in the Otherworld where our ancestors live,
where they are rested and refreshed,
which is thus called the Land of Apples.
He cuts it through the middle horizontally and holds it up to show the star formed by the seed chambers. He says:
But hidden inside is the star of rebirth.
So what does this fruit say to us?
It is death, whose shadow is life and promises rebirth.
He holds them both out and says:
Which is our way?
Which path are we on?
Are we on the path of death?
Or are we on the path of life?
All: We are on the path of life.
He puts the fruits down and passes the pomegranate around so everyone can have at least one seed. He puts the apple back together and puts it on the altar
And this is your path:
Death, with the promise of rebirth.
We say goodbye to you for now
as you go your way and we go ours.
Blow out the candles and share the pomegranate.
Samhain was one of the great bonfire days of the Gaels. Any of the festivals may be celebrated outside with a bonfire, and the Night of Remembering is
particularly appropriate for its inside equivalent, the fire in the fireplace, where you may gather after the meal for more stories of the ancestors. On the
first night, you might also light a bonfire in the garden or fields and carry fire around them to bless them.
Save the apple and the offerings on the ancestors' plate for the next day. The day of Samhain is as magical as the night. The door between the worlds is
still open. Visit a cemetery. If possible, visit one where actual ancestors of yours are buried. If you can't do this, find the oldest one possible. Walk
through it, reading the names on the tombstones out loud. Try to imagine who these people were. If your ancestors are buried there, point out their graves
to your children and explain who they were and how they are related. Leave offerings, including the apple and the food from the ancestor's plate on some of
the older graves, especially of your actual ancestors. Say:
We remember you, all our ancestors.
See, here we are;
We have not forgotten you.
See, here are our gifts.
We have not been idle.
We have not wasted what you have left us.
Any offerings in addition to the food from the previous night will depend on the culture you and they come from. In most cases some sort of bread and drink
will be right. A common gift in Indo-European cultures is beans. Seeds of all sorts are appropriate as promises of rebirth. If you use drink, you may pour
it on the ground. You may even wish to use hair, a part of you that is often given as an offering in rites. If you visit the graves of your own relatives
you can leave offerings of their favorite foods or drawings made by your children.
Many cultures used what the British call "soulcakes" -- small loaves made from the local grain. In India, they were of rice. The Ainu of northern Japan
used millet cakes. In parts of the British Isles, they were basically pancakes. In parts of Russia, gingerbread was used. The most traditional soulcake,
therefore, is whatever bread, cake, or cookie you commonly eat. Pancakes, crepes, cornbread, pita bread, biscuits, Irish soda bread -- what sort of cakes do
you wish to share with your ancestors? What kind do you think they will like?
For a sweet soulcake with only three ingredients, try shortbread. It's easy to make:
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 tbs. sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl. Sift the flour into the bowl. Work into the butter and sugar until smooth. Divide dough in half and shape
each half into a circle about 1/2" thick. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut partially through into eight pieces and decorate with fork marks.
Preheat oven to 375. Bake for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 325 and bake for 20 minutes more. Cool.
As well as being given to the dead, soulcakes have been given to the poor and to children who come to the door. The first is an expression of the giving of
the final harvest's bounty, and the second is yet another possible origin for trick or treating. Either may be a substitute for giving to the dead. In
modern times, since the poor do not come to your door, you can go to theirs and leave baskets of food anonymously, donate food to a food bank, or donate some
of your time to a soup kitchen.
If you are from a culture that reveres its ancestors, research its rites. If, like the Chinese, your culture already has a day for revering the ancestors,
perhaps you should perform these rites on that day. And of course, when looking at cultures to derive customs from, don't forget our own, with its wreaths