Learn all about the third harvest festival in the Wheel of the Year and discover the origins and rituals of Samhain, plus altar ideas and easy recipes to try.
What is Samhain?
This festival, signifying the beginning of the dark half of the year, has been celebrated since ancient times. Samhain, pronounced “sah-wn,” has Celtic pagan origins. It’s the third of the harvest festivals (after Lammas and Mabon) in the Wheel of the Year, and it prepares us for winter while honoring the ancestors and the natural cycle of death and rebirth.
During this time of the year, the leaves have fallen, the fields are bare, the nights are longer, the ground sparkles with frost in the dawn, and a persistent chill hangs in the air. Winter is coming. The barrier between the realms of the living and the spirits is thinner, especially beneath the light of a full moon.
This is the most opportune time of the year to communicate with the dead.
Many cultures host celebrations during this time. In addition to Samhain, there is Halloween, Day of the Dead, All Saints’ Days, and All Souls’ Day, among others. Samhain in particular is often practiced among modern-day witches, which can include pagans and Wiccans.
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The Origin of Samhain
We can trace early practices back thousands and thousands of years.
The Mound of the Hostages in Ireland, built sometime between 3000 BCE and 2500BCE, was a place where the Neolithic people of Ireland buried the ashes and bones of their dead. The ancient passage tomb was carefully designed so the sun rays would shine into the structure only two days out of the year: Imbolc on February 1st, and Samhain on November 1st.
Samhain was a time to appease the gods in the hopes of avoiding a harsh winter, honoring the dead during the time of the year when the veil was thin and the spirits could easily move between realms, helping the souls of the recently departed find their way to the other side, and consulting ancient spirits of the other realm.
The Celts would light massive bonfires and gather together as a community. They feasted and played games, and they left food offerings in front of their doorways to placate hungry ghosts and faeries and prevent them from entering the home. As the night drew to an end, Celts clad in costume would have a parade to the edge of town, leading the ghosts away.
The Roman Empire introduced apple trees to Celtic Samhain, which led to the tradition of bobbing for apples. However, due to the pagan roots of Samhain, the Roman Catholic Church was determined to replace it with its own celebration. Pope Gregory III changed the date of All Martyrs’ Day, which had been celebrated among Christians in May, to November 1st to replace Samhain, renaming it to All Saints’ Day in the process.
“Hallow,” meaning a saint or holy person in ancient usage, brought other names into the mix, including All Hallows, Feast of All Saints, and Hallowmas. All Hallow’s Eve blended with Samhain traditions, eventually evolving into modern-day Halloween.
Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), celebrated in Latin American cultures, was originally held at the beginning of summer. With a similar theme to Samhain, the celebration honored the ancestors. It was believed that the beloved spirits would return to join in the celebration with their living descendants.
When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they viewed the practice as sacrilegious and, as with Samhain, the church sought to convert the “heathen festival” to a more Christian outlook. The holiday was moved on the calendar to coincide with All Saints’ Day.
While Halloween, Day of the Dead, and Samhain are separate traditions, they do share similar elements with one another. However, it’s important to remember that despite their similarities, they are not synonymous.
Looking for new Samhain ritual ideas to try? Visiting the graves of loved ones passed is a common part of Samhain. You might consider taking a trip to decorate the gravestones of your ancestors and pay homage to their memories. Spend some time in remembrance at their final resting places.
Share fond memories of departed ancestors with your living family. Tell stories. Look at photographs together. Watch home movies. Deceased pets can be included in this as well; our fur babies are part of the family, after all, even after they’ve crossed the rainbow bridge.
Samhain can also be a time to say a prayer for the forgotten dead. Perhaps a tragedy struck you close to the heart, even if you didn’t personally know anyone who lost a life. A school shooting. 9/11. An accident that happened near you. This is a time to connect, to release pent-up grief, and to find peace in the knowledge that life is fleeting and death is a natural part of the balanced cycle.
In solitude, take some time to meditate by the altar. You can focus on connecting with your ancestors, or you can direct your concentration to the earthly transition of the seasons. Think of what you are grateful for. Appreciate the benefits of the harvest that have been reaped, and thank the Earth for all that she has provided before she goes to sleep for a well-deserved rest. You are welcome to pray to any deity/deities you hold dear, but this aspect does not have to be incorporated into your rituals if you are not religious. You are free to celebrate the seasons and the deceased without tying the practice to a deity.
Divination is a powerful tool during this time. Scrying, rune readings, and tarot readings are likely to serve you well.
Arranging the Altar
If you are using this ceremonial time to honor your ancestors, you can place photos of the souls you wish to honor on your altar, or create a separate shrine. Mementos and heirlooms, such as jewelry passed down from an ancestor, can also be used to adorn the altar.
The Samhain altar often includes symbols of death, such as skulls, skeletons, or grave rubbings. You can also forage in the garden and add flower remains, husks, acorns and other nuts, and dried leaves to the arrangement. Remaining yields from the last harvest, such as gourds, pumpkins, straw, root vegetables, and squash also make a good addition.
Samhain’s color palette is much darker than Mabon’s to signify the shift into the darkness of winter. Use deep purples, burgundies, blacks, and dark grays.
Lingering symbols of the harvest can be incorporated, such as golds and oranges. Candles are an especially prominent feature of Samhain, and it’s not uncommon to see an altar glowing with a collection of candles ranging in size with short in the front and tall in the back.
Below are a couple of simple, traditional recipes to celebrate Samhain:
IRISH SOUL CAKES
4 c flour
1 packet dry yeast
1 c milk
2 Tbs butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c sugar
1/2 c lemon zest
1 1/4 c golden raisins
1. Cream yeast with 1 tsp of sugar and 1 tsp of milk until frothy.
2. In a separate bowl, blend in flour, spices, and salt, and then cut in butter. Add the rest of the sugar to the flour mix and blend, then add the rest of the milk. Beat the egg into the yeast mixture and combine with the flour mixture. Beat until stiff.
3. Fold in the raisins and lemon zest, then cover with a damp cloth and let it rise.
4. Divide in two. Place each half in greased 7″ round pan. Cover and let rise again for 30 minutes. Bake for 1 hour at 400 degrees.
ROASTED PUMPKIN SEEDS
1. After you’ve removed the seeds from your pumpkin for your holiday Jack-O-Lantern, rinse them thoroughly and ensure that all the extra pumpkin bits have been removed (otherwise, it’s likely to burn).
2. Toss the seeds in melted butter.
3. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and add your favorite seasoning:
Italian style: garlic powder, dried oregano, and basil
Spicy style: curry and paprika
BBQ: dry barbecue seasoning
Ranch: powdered ranch dressing mix
Sweet style: cinnamon and sugar
Pumpkin pie style: allspice, nutmeg, sugar, and cinnamon
4. Once the seeds are coated completely with the seasoning of your choice, spread them evenly in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in the oven at 300°F for 45 minutes, occasionally stirring the seeds around on the sheet.
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Finally… Have Fun!
However you choose to celebrate Samhain, there truly is no “right way” or “wrong way.” I believe that the spirit and tradition of Samhain can be adapted to your own beliefs, whether you worship one deity, multiple gods and goddesses, or none at all. Choose the practices that best apply to you and make them your new tradition with your own personal spin.
Do you have any Samhain traditions or recipes? Please share in the comments!
This article was originally published on October 19, 2020 and last updated on October 29, 2021.