“Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “Darker half” of the year.”
It’s mid October, and the festival of Samhain is approaching so I’m making plans to mark the festive celebration in my own home. It isn’t a secret that I prefer not to celebrate Halloween but I love to celebrate Samhain!
I don’t celebrate Halloween for two reasons – firstly, I don’t like the emphasis on bring the ghouls and ghosts ever closer to us in our lives and doing it in a way that trivialises the reality of their impact is not a good idea. (I spend a lot of time keeping entities like this away from us so anything them brings them closer is, to me, a bad idea). And, secondly, the original festival, now highjacked by modern commercialism, seems to be devoid of its roots – that of a marking of the wheel of the year and a chance to reconnect with the dearest of loved ones that are no longer with us. There is a subtle difference but its subtle enough to make me not celebrate Halloween and only celebrate Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced Sow-een, as in Cow-in) is a traditional Celtic festival. Celebrated in Celtic Ireland from about 2,000 years ago and still celebrated by Wiccan and Pagans in the UK today, Samhain marked the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). Samhain starts on the evening of October 31st and ends on the evening November 1st. Although I am not a Wiccan or Pagan I still love to celebrate the Celtic festivals as they arrive in the Wheel of the Year Samhain straddles the light and the dark as we head towards winter.
At Samhain the division between our world and the spirit world was (and still is) considered to be at its thinnest, allowing spirits to step forward and pass straight through.
The family’s ancestors were honoured at Samhain of course. They were invited into the home, welcomed back to the heart of the family for the festival. Seats at the tables were deliberately left vacant for the souls of ancestors who might drop by, even place settings were laid out at the dining table in readiness.
Samhain was also a time where the very last of the foods were prepared and set to one side, stored ready to meet demands during the winter ahead. I always make pickles and jams, brew boozy tipples like Sloe gins and blackberry vodkas, and though I’ve always loved to do this throughout the year, the last final days of preserving comes together during the final days of September and October.
Not all Ghosts and Spirits were welcomed into the homes of course during Samhain. Unfortunately when the veils are thinnest you can’t only expect ‘nice’ spirits to move through and approach you. To placate wandering Spirits that were not welcomed at the family table, food and drink was left outside the front door. Fires were lit to warm the houses on the inside and bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits on the outside, there to purify, clear and protect the broader space around.
So, fire and food played a big part in how our forefathers celebrated the festival of Samhain and I love to celebrate Samhain in this way too myself. I haven’t got space for a large bonfire outside my house but I do light a warming crackling fire in the fireplace in my snug living room. I am fortunate to have space for a real fireplace in my home and I like to watch the flames dance and, with no other noise than the crackling wood to take my attention, it gives me an opportunity to soften my gaze and to reflect on the year now almost fully passed bye.
Next to the fireplace I burn incense for additional protection. I have a beautiful incense burner that doesn’t use white hot coals as some incense burners do, I find the white coal method destroys the more subtle aromas created by the resins and the spices and burning them in this way limits the throw and duration of the perfumed smoke. My burner cradles the incense blend in a metal basket, suspending the morsels of incense over a gentle flame supplied by a little tea light positioned underneath. Warmed this way allows the incense, the resins and spices, to be gently coaxed to unlock their aroma. The aroma throws beautifully and I love the way the perfume hangs in the air and infuses into the fabrics and furnishings. Frankincense Pearls, Sage leaves, Paulo Santo chips…I immediately feel the protection these aromatised mists cast, offering a more clearly defined boundary between the living and those long departed souls.
I will be lighting my first hearth fire and burning protective incense from the evening of Samhain on the 31st of October through to the evening on November 1st. And, I’ll continue to create this protective shield throughout the Winter months, keeping the veils between the world of the living and those of the world of Spirit firmly in place. Fire makes me feel connected and protected through the long dark weeks of winter until the Spring arrives, just as it has done for generations of people who lived before me.
I also love that Samhain recognises the importance of staying connected with those loved ones long departed. Although Halloween seems to have lost its sacred focus, its much more commercial and targeted toward the more macabre side of the veils (not a side I wish to encourage at all) Samhain, in it’s purest sense, paid reverence to those loved ones in our families or among our friends that have passed away. Most of my family died many years ago and it gives me a sense of connection when I can use rituals to honour them and the relationship I had with them.
My Parents are buried out in Majorca where they lived and so I don’t have a cemetery in the UK where I can visit. Creating a sacred altar at my fireside gives me a focus, a means of being close. I have even visited local cemeteries to make a connection but found I felt more deeply when i could arrange things to honour them in my own home.
Samhain was not only about connection to family. It was also about connection to nature and the surrounding land. As the cooler days and nights drew in it would have made sense to bring the cattle down from their summer pastures and offer them more sheltered areas out of the cold winds. I don’t have a heard of cattle but I do have families of hedgehogs that live at the bottom of my garden. I always heap up some logs and fallen leaves so they have a snug winter bed to hibernate in.
Samhain…..the 5 ways I mark this Celtic festival with my own personal ceremony
I have created my own way of honouring the Samhain festival using 5 simple ingredients… fire, incense, food & drink, an alter and acts of conscious thoughtfulness. People have always loved to create rituals and ceremonies and as I don’t really relate to the modern take on halloween, and as there are very few places where I can join more traditional Samhain revellers here in Oxfordshire, I have created my own ceremony. Anyone can create their own ceremony. Provided you intend to make a sacred space then it’s pretty much up to you how you do it.
I have created a simple ceremony for Samhain using 5 simple ingredients… fire, incense, food & drink, an altar and acts of conscious thoughtfulness.
I am fortunate to have a fireplace. I always set a fire and use it to signal the start of the festival.
As the first flames leap into life I cast a protection around my home and the loved ones that are linked to it. I set the fire and get it started and then i take a minute or two to connect with the sound and sight of the flames. Is there anything more special than a dancing flame?
If you don’t have a means of creating a fire safely in your home space or garden why not use a large candle instead> No candle rule in your home? How about using bright fairy lights set over a mirror so that the light creates a flame like dance on the walls and surface around it.
I have a delightful incense burner that I use to burn my favourite incense blends (bought from Star Child when I visit their store in Glastonbury.) I don’t always stick to traditional blends specifically designed for clearing or protection, I can’t get enough of one particular incense blend Star Child created inspired by the ancient Egyptians called Kyphi which is my favourite. There is also a different blend Star Child make that is dedicated to Samhain specifically. On their website they say their incense is designed with traditional magic and intent. Love it. “Samhain is a time to honour the dead and to contemplate the mysteries of life, death and regeneration. It is a time to turn inwards and in the depth and silence of our souls we confront our shadows and our own mortality.” Star Child’s incenses (and they do quite a few) contain fragrant herbs, flowers, resins, gums and wood chips that are infused with pure essential oils and absolutes
3. Creating an Altar
Remembering our loved ones is what this festival is all about, so it’s really important. I like to create a small altar in their honour and memory. Altars can be created on tables or on shelves. I create an altar by arranging mementos on the mantel over my fireplace. You’ll think me very sentimental but I place a photo or two of loved ones I care about that have passed away and if there is something of theirs that I still own that goes on the mantel too – like a piece of jewellery or such. I have a bottle of Femme Perfume that my mother used to own for example (you can still get a faint whiff of the perfume if you unstopper the bottle even 33 years on) so that will be placed on the Mantel next to the photo of her, and I will dust off my Dad’s old Ronson lighter too…it still works…sparking with its original flint and all! I’ll use that to light the fire … and the candle that warms the incense too. There is something about using it that feels very right to me. I’ll also put some greenery on the altar, maybe a treat or two that I’ve made. Something for everyone! I love to use herbs like Rosemary for their unmistakable fragrance and freshness. Mum loved freesias and Dad loved yellow roses so there is always a small vase of these lovely flowers on the altar too.
4. Food and drink
Samhain is also about making offerings of food and drink. I love to welcome friends to my home and to share a meal with them at my table. I don’t leave space for passing Spirits to drop in but I will raise a toast to them, no-one gets forgotten.
Rather than shower opportunist trick or treaters with sweets that i have been out and bought I prefer to rifle through my larder cupboards and see if there is any food there that I will no longer make use of. I box this up and take it to my local food bank. I know it’s not quite the same as it means there are no easy pickings for trick or treaters but I know that our local food bank is constantly asking for donations and I’d rather gift it to those people who really do need a bit of help and support.
4. Conscious thoughtfulness
Rather than shower opportunist trick or treaters with sweets that I have been out and bought from the local supermarket I prefer to rifle through what is already taking up space in my larder cupboards and see if there is any food there that I will no longer make use of. Nope I don’t give those kids! I box this food up and take it to my local food bank. I know it’s not quite the same as doling out sweets and it means there are no easy pickings for trick or treaters but I know that our local food bank is constantly hoping for donations and I’d rather gift food to those people who really do need a bit of help and support than supply local kids with sweets that I don’t feel will do them any good anyway.
I also set up an area of the garden to feed and shelter wildlife. Remember those Hedgehogs! Who knows how mild or severe the winter months will be. There’ll be a bird feeder or two as well that gets set up, and a bird bath. As well as the occasional pile of leaves I always pile stones up too for overwintering Bees and Insects..just in case.
Conscious thoughtfulness is also about random acts of kindness too. How could you show someone you care?
Your ceremony starts from the moment you assemble together everything you need. Making deliberate choices about what you can use to honour the Samhain festival and the connection it brings is really important. I arrange the Altar, set the fire, put a fresh candle in the incense burner and spoon incense into the cradle. I fetch a drink and a small plate of treats and then, using Dad’s old Ronson lighter I will light the firelighters, and light the candle. I then sit in the room, quietly, not a sound and soak up the moments reconnecting with all those ancestors that link to me through time to whatever marked the beginning of it all.
At some point during my ceremony I also put pen to paper in my journal, this gives me an opportunity to transfer the conscious thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart to paper and helps me connect closely with my relationship to myself and to those close to me that are no longer here. I sit close to the fire, incense burning, a plate of food and a glass of warming drink and I take a moment or two to write. It’s the most sacred part of my ceremony.
How will you celebrate Samhain this year. Send me an email or leave a comment I’d love to hear from you.