At its most superficial, Halloween is a day of costumes, candy, mischief, and mystery. It’s scary. It’s fun and nostalgic. We carve jack-o-lanterns, we go door to door in hot pursuit of tricks and/or treats, we dress ourselves in silly or scary disguises to fool friends and foes alike. But the origins of this beloved holiday are much more complex and rooted in fascinating folkloric history than most of our modern celebrations would let on.
Witches celebrate Samhain, an ancient Pagan holiday honoring the harvest and the natural transition from abundant fertility to active decay. One of the Greater Sabbats of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, Samhain is a “window time” where spirits can more easily return to the earthly plane to visit loved ones, resolve unfinished business, or simply haunt the shit out of the living if that’s what they prefer.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-en” and meaning Summer’s End) is the highest holy day of witches. It is a cross quarter day, situated between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Samhain is a major festival with several aspects. It is new year’s eve for witches, as well as our third and final harvest festival.
Eliade’s Encyclopaedia of Religion states as follows: “The Eve and day of Samhain were characterized as a time when the barriers between the human and supernatural worlds were broken…. Not a festival honoring any particular Celtic deity, Samhain acknowledged the entire spectrum of nonhuman forces that roamed the earth during that period.”
This is the time of year when the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living is said to be it’s thinnest. Spirits and souls of loved ones are said to have more power and ability to visit us. This is the time of year for remembering and honouring our dead, and many people will leave a plate of food and a glass of wine out for wandering spirits.
In the Celtic Tradition, the year begins at Samhain. This is the most powerful night of the year to perform divination. Divination is done in many forms but all seek to establish a look ahead, whether the answer appears good or bad.(source — I recommend checking out this site for a comprehensive resource on the Pagan holiday)
Whether you believe in spirits, honor the Witches’ New Year, or just feel a fondness for costumes and candy (a legit response to Halloween), here are some ways you can celebrate the holiday the way the ancient Celts did.
Build an altar.
There are a number of ways one can approach creating an altar for Samhain, but ultimately each altar will be as unique as the witch who builds it. Altar creation is a personal ritual process, performed with utmost intention and care. Be sure to carve out a time when you can give your altar your undivided attention. Below are a few options to consider regarding what type of altar to build.
Samhain Altar – honoring the holiday, the thinning of the veil, the intermingling of the living & the dead, honoring Nature, seasonal cycles, wildlife, & the Elements. Include items such as autumn leaves, apples or pomegranates, pumpkin lanterns, corn dollies, acorns, seasonal flowers like mums, black &/or orange items, items to represent life and death, lost loved ones, and anything else you’d like to honor while the veil is thin.
Above is a photo of my altar from 2017.
My cat Oliver died that year, rather suddenly and unexpectedly following a brief illness. We were very close and his was a really difficult death for me to deal with. Honoring him in this way was part of the healing process. On my altar I included a photo of Oliver, the paw prints & fur clipping taken prior to his cremation (at the place I now work), black candles, a deer skull, feathers, quartz crystals, dried flowers, and a ring that belonged to my granny (d. 2011).
Ancestor Altar – honoring both blood ancestors & spiritual ancestors; Those Who Came Before; those who have inspired us in our lives and practices. Include items such as your Beloved Dead’s favorite foods, drinks, sweets, or other treats, photos or drawings, items that may have belonged to them like jewelry or clothing, items representing a shared cultural or spiritual heritage, etc.
Personal Altar – honoring yourself and all you’ve achieved, overcome, let go of, lost, or transformed. Include photos or other items to represent yourself at various stages of your life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood), jewelry, personal talismans, artwork, family mementos.
Consider creating a 2020 altar dedicated to all the losses, the gains, the shifts, the unexpected blessings, and everything in between. Grieve for what was lost and what never was. Celebrate what is and what might never have been. Allow yourself, however briefly, to occupy the liminal space that exists beyond life and death, beyond the material world, beyond our bodies. Mark this moment in time and then prepare to move forward. Witches, we’ve got work to do.
Make an offering.
Offerings to the spirits or our ancestors can be any number of things depending on who or what you choose to honor. If there is a specific deity you’d like to honor, invoke, or work with, I recommend researching that deity to learn what offerings they prefer.
Ancestral offerings might include a dead loved one’s favorite food or drink, sweets, baked goods, coins or money, tobacco, flowers, perfumes or scents, etc.
TMI alert, but my favorite offering is menstrual blood. In my practice I often use blood as an offering at my outdoor altar / sacred space, typically on either the new or full moon. I use a menstrual cup so it’s easy to collect, and I often find my cycle synced up with either the new or full moon, so, you know, it’s timely and fresh which I believe makes it all the more potent.
Blood — especially menstrual blood — is a powerful offering any day of the year but on a full moon/blue moon Samhain evening, its potency will be amplified many times over.
Reflect on life, death, & Nature.
Go for a walk in the woods and observe Nature in her various stages of life, death, and decay. Look for bones or shed fur. Collect fallen leaves or wilted flowers. Contemplate Death as a neutral, benevolent wild force necessary to create and maintain the delicate balance that only Nature is capable of. Consider your place among the living and the dead, the ways you have/do/will take up space in the past, present, and future.
If you’re in Iowa City I highly recommend a stroll through Oakland Cemetery (1000 Brown St.), home to the infamous Black Angel, a monument whose legend looms large and extends far past the borders of our state. The cemetery serves as a spooky but serene backdrop to any autumn adventure but check out nearby Hickory Hill Park if you’re in the mood for a more wildery wander. Keep an eye out for deer, foxes, owls, hawks, and songbirds galore.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. A quick internet search will yield thousands of other ideas should none of these be your cup of tea. With covid being a thing, a lot of folx will be forced to get creative. What are your plans? Drop a comment below and let me know how you’re celebrating this year.
And don’t forget to stop by Over the Moon Studio (128 1/2 E. Washington St., IA City) on Saturday, October 31 for Samhain Tarot Divinations from 12-6pm. Not only is it Samhain / Halloween / All Hallow’s Eve, it’s also a full moon-blue moon as well as the first full moon on Halloween since 1944. I can already feel the magic this night will bring.