The Wheel of the Year Stops again … Samhain Celebrations and Traditions
Samhain falls on 31st October every year and marks one of the four cross spokes on the Wheel of the Year. It is not one of the four major Pagan Sabbats, however it sits part way between the Mabon, the Autumn Equinox, and Yule, the Winter Solstice, on the Wheel of the Year. Samhain is equally as important as the four major Sabbats, and is just magical as any other Pagan celebration and holiday. To many Pagans, it is the most important day of the magical calendar. In this blog I will take you on my ramblings of Samhain Celebrations and Traditions.
At this point in the year, we are starting to add decorations for Samhain in our homes; some of them traditional to honour the thinning of the veil, the “other” worlds and those ancestors who came long before us and those who we still remember with a happy pain in our hearts, and others more modern and fun to entertain the children, those amongst us who don’t have the bone deep and instinctual awareness of the true meaning and value of this day, and to entertain ourselves. After all, we Pagans have the most fun of all on All Hallows Eve, right?! Those Samhain celebrations and traditions are a part of what we are all about.
The nights are most definitely longer now, throwing their blanket of star studded inky blue over the ever-greying days earlier and earlier with each click forward on the wheel. We feel a real difference as we walk closer to Samhain. The shadows seen out of the corner of our eyes are seen earlier in the day as the meek light fades; they stretch longer and seem blacker, more vacuous and sinister, than they ever did during the summer months. And as we walk inevitably towards Samhain, and the veil between worlds thins, how do we know these shadows seen in our peripheral vision, in the corners of rooms and skulking under beds and stairs, are really shadows at all. Who know what lurks in the tween places as we steadily and unfalteringly approach All Hallows Eve. For there are many reasons to celebrate this most wondrous of days, not least the spooky tales and scary not quite believed things you see and feel while the dead, the Fae, the beasties and the creepers walk amongst us. Can you see them? Are they behind you, watching you, following you? Or standing so much in plain sight that your eyes do not see them staring at you from a spot to close for comfort?
Personally, my home already sports pumpkins and red apples, both decoratively and on my alter to remind me that Samhain spins ever closer. Vases of flowers in my living space are decorated with wooden bats amongst them to remind me of the fun and commercial side of Samhain that I enjoy with the children in my life, and I have started to add a true autumnal and Samhain inspired area to the bottom of my back garden, near the place Harry the Hedgehog has made his home. I have a mobile made of wooden pumpkins for no other reason than I wanted to make it. I liked the little wooden pieces and have a burning need to constantly craft or write. At this time of year creativity seeps from me and I seem to be constantly sticking my fingers together, sticking pins in my fingers, dropping beads or loosing endless fights with balls of yarn.
However, none of that is actually about Samhain or Samhain celebrations and traditions. So, let’s creep onto things more generally about Halloween.
A little introduction to Samhain
So the first thing to know is that Samhain is not pronounced Sam-hain. The correct pronunciation is Sou-win and spellings differ ever so slightly, being passed down from the many Celtic settlements of the UK and Europe for many hundreds of years. Thousands of years ago ancient Pagans celebrated their new year on the 1st November, their celebrations beginning at sun down on 31st October and ending at sundown on 1st November.
This was the rebirth of their year. Samhain, Halloween, All Hallows Eve – the day before their New Year, became a day of death; the death of the old year and days been and gone.
Our initial instinct at the thought of a day of death is to recoil, to shun and to perhaps burry our heads in the heady autumn earth until such a day has passed. However this is not a day to be feared or avoided. Death is the inevitability of all things and is the passing from the old and tired to the new, vibrant and virile. From death comes rebirth, renewal and the circle of life on our blessed Mother Earth. At this time, seeds fallen from harvested crops are now deep in the ground and lie dormant, sleeping and resting until it is time for them to begin blooming with new life in the Spring.
Our Mother Earth at this time is spent; after a long and enduring year of growing and nurturing, she has provided the life upon her with sustenance to survive the dark cold winter; she has been harvested until she is stripped bare, she has provided shelter and protection for animals beginning their hibernation, and she is ready for her own slumber. Falling into her own stage of death on this day of Samhain, she begins to regenerate for her own rebirth, to flourish with life again when the times comes to awaken.
The Holly King remains strong during this time, and although he wanders with the May Queen, the Maiden, who is now the wise and venerated Crone, he perceives his drowsy and sleeping world with pride, knowing that retreat and rest are vital to the never ending cyclical nature of the ground his hooves sink into as he stands watching all. Hand in withered hand they walk through their cold and barren lands, his evergreen boughs of Holly and Fir boasting themselves resplendent, reminding us that life, whilst still and lifeless in appearance, remains defiant and strong. The Crone will fall at this time, shrink and sink back into the very Earth that birthed her, back into the earth she crawled out of naked and screaming, to reclaim her fertile womanhood as she ascends back to the light. The wisdom she has bottled and brewed throughout her wanderings with the Oak King and the Holly King, far and wide across her Earth, will seep into the very soil beneath and around her to be reborn within her swelling belly when she arises once again to create new life as the Maiden.
So many people, most especially in this modern day of Samhain being the “holiday of Halloween” use this night as one to perform séances, dress up as creepy characters, eat too much candy and generally celebrate all things evil, gory and spooky. Now I could write endlessly on the way in which patriarchal religion and repression has twisted and contorted Samhain to represent evil and ill intent, however I will refrain. Essentially the veil between worlds being at one of its thinnest points is the very reason people experience more spooky happenings on Samhain. Teenagers play with Ouija boards at Halloween sleepovers on this night and wonder why they receive responses from the “game” they bought at their local toy store. Well, that, my spooky teenage friends, is because today, more than almost any other day, the dead walk among us. They commune with us with more ease and, in some traditions, even return from the beyond to visit their loved ones and walk amongst their kin. With the veil between words at its’ thinnest, other creatures and beings are more easily able to visit us and our Earthy plane. You may think yourself too full of sugary treats when you see a Fae in your garden, a Nymph dancing in the woods, glimpse ancient Pagan Goddesses and Gods fornicating around their effigies in forests or hear what you’re sure were dragon wings in the sky above you. Maybe you are too full of sugar and hallucinated it all, or perhaps, just perhaps, there really was something there in the night, just beyond your sight, grinning at you with wide eyes as you pass it by without a glance.
Speaking with Spooks
There are many ways, both traditional and modern to celebrate Samhain. For me, the celebration or ritual that sings within me is to connect with ancestors. This tradition of communing with the dead at the thinning of the veil is found across the world in to the deepest and darkest places of our Mother Earth. Some will practice divination by way of Talking Boards, Divining Rods, Cards, Stones or Runes. Some will read messages in nature; water, leaves, smoke and flames. Others will use pendulums, meditation, Shamanic Journeying or their own innate psychic abilities.
What is important at this time, for me, is for my message to be pure, to know who is welcome to come forward to speak and what energies, entities and spirits are not welcome in my space.
It’s important to realise that to commune with those we have lost draws energy from us, and we must therefore be prepared and have reserves of energy available to us. We must have protections in place, boundaries set against the unwelcome drawing energy from us. The dead walk freely amongst us tonight. Do not speak to the dead if you do not want them to respond.
Yes, I know, I can hear you all saying that bonfires belong on bonfire night. Well, actually, none of my sister withes would even bat an eyelid if I lit a random bonfire at any time of the year or on any day of the week, however my point is that bonfires were an integral part of Samhain celebrations long before our Mr Fawkes tried to blow up the country’s least desirables those hundreds of years ago. Tall, wide and blazing fires were lit on Samhain night. Bonfires are lit as a gift to the Sun God, honouring him and letting him know that we await his return when the days again begin to grow longer and the tide in his battle against the darkness turns in his favour at Yule. Bonfires also provide(d) a wondrously warm heat source for communities to celebrate the end of Harvest around, and for youngsters playing traditional “tricks” on each other to retreat to, warm themselves through before continuing their mischief. The bonfire represents a light and warmth in the darkness
Tricks, Treats and Sweets
Trick or treating is one of the first things that springs to many a mind at Samhain, a tradition largely made popular in America. However, as mentioned above, the practice of tricks and mischief at Samhain is an old one. Children and adults alike would wear masks and costumes while celebrating the end of the Harvest. Tricks would be played, merriment would be had and games would be played. Food would be shared for a good trick or piece of mischief. Of course, there has to be balance in all things, and what better night would there be to carry out any darker deeds you had up your sleeve? I have no stories to share of any such deadly deeds, but you just know many an unsolved murder took place amongst the roaring fires and raucous merriment. This tradition was taken to America with immigration, markedly of the Irish Celts, and evolved into the mainstream commercial hullabaloo we see today, sadly losing the important and poignant relevance of this night of the dead. The playing of tricks and sharing of food has become what we now know as trick or treating, the bigger the bag of sweets brought home the better. Don’t forget though, the sharing of food and excitement of this night once was a last night of fun and abundance before villages, hamlets and communities hunkered down for the harshness of the coming months.
Turnips and Pumpkins
Who doesn’t love to carve a pumpkin into a scary face, a witch on a broomstick or a creepy cat? Originally, the carving of a face and lighting this up with a candle was done using a turnip (or more accurately a Swede – actual turnips are pretty small), generally as they were more readily available. When I was a little girl I remember carving out a turnip (or rather, watching while a parent or grandparent carved it) and lighting it with a candle then adding some string to carry it with. It filled me with pure delight when that creepy face lit up and I popped the top back on. I suppose the use of pumpkins after the migration of Samhain to America is again a resource thing, and in America pumpkins were just more readily available. And let’s face it, they’re significantly easier to carve than turnips (Swedes). But why do we do it? Sure, it’s fun, it looks cool, and the flesh makes delicious soup, but other than that, what’s the point? Well, these creepy lanterns, or Jack-a-Lanterns, were placed at front doors to invite in friendly spirits but ward off evil spirits. So when you’re done wreaking candy havoc on your neighbourhood, summoning Great Aunty Melinda and burning your back garden down with an outrageous, remember to put your lantern out on your doorstep to stop the uninvited dead, the monsters and other beasties who live in the shadows following you home.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll chop and change your alter a fair bit, following the Luna cycles, the seasons and the constant new finds out on walks and adventures (I mean, you can’t have too many pinecones or sticks – can you?). Ultimately your choice of what to put on your alter is yours alone. Your altar is a deeply personal and spiritual space where you visually personify your craft, your beliefs and the magic bubbling inside of you. Personally, I have been putting items in honour of Samhain on my altar for a while now, and they reflect what the autumn and Samhain mean to me. I have mini pumpkins, red apples, pine cones, wild heather collected from the border forests, citrine, clear quartz and wooden runes. I have Ivy, succulents, fresh lavender and moonstone. And (obviously) a black glittery skull. If you aren’t sure what to put on your altar, try meditating on what this time of year means to you. Do you feel drawn to natural items, to crystals, cards, runes? Which elements are speaking to you? Do you want to add divination tools, candles or incense? My advice is to select items that reflect the meaning of mid-autumn and Samhain to you. You cannot get your altar wrong as long as it is authentic to you and what your gut is telling you to include.
So I’ve talked enough. Go enjoy your traditional Samhain, your fun Halloween and your general creepy times. Try to take a moment, though, amongst the frivolities, to give a nod to our amazing mother Earth, and thank her for the blessings she has given to you these last months, as she has given her all to us, her very last shoot and seed, see us over the chilly winter months.
So don’t forget to enjoy and relish in some Samhain celebrations and traditions.