Samhain: October 31, 2021
What is Samhain?
Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”) is the third harvest festival in the traditional Celtic/Wiccan calendar. It coincides with and is the precursor to Halloween/All Hallows’ Eve, and it falls just before All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Día de los Muertos. Each of these holidays revolves around honoring our ancestors, guides, angels, saints, and whoever we wish to communicate with in other worlds. As the days grow shorter and cooler, plant life begins to die. It’s a time to meditate on life, death, and rebirth. Just as we see cycles of growth and decay in nature, we as humans grow and change and eventually die and return to the earth. But just as spring brings the promise of new life, death isn’t the end.
“The ones who love us never truly leave us.” – Sirius Black
It is said that during this time of year, the veil between this world and the next grows thin, and it becomes possible to communicate through it to those who have passed on. Whether you know your ancestors and can trace your lineage back centuries, or you aren’t sure who to communicate with, you can still set up an altar and leave offerings.
If you don’t know your ancestors, you can use this time to connect with:
- Unknown ancestors: by setting up a general altar, you can honor and connect with those who have passed on, even if you don’t know them
- Those who you admire who have passed on: many use this time to pay homage to witches who were killed during the Salem Witch Trials, the Scottish Witch Trials, and so on
- Ancestors of the land: rather than focusing on family lineage, you can choose to honor those who lived in your area before you – this is especially great for green witches and those who work closely with the land
- Spirits and spirit guides: the veil connects us not just to humans who came before, but all kinds of spirits like the Fair Folk
- Deities, especially those of the underworld like Isis, Anubis, Yama, Hades/Pluto, Persephone, Hecate, Freyja, Hel, the Morrigan, and so on
- Angels: if you work with angels, this is a powerful time to communicate with them
Traditions and Beliefs of Samhain
“Samhain” comes from the Gaelic language and translates to “summer’s end.” It is also the Gaelic name for the month of November. During this time, spirits and creatures from other realms walked on earth and interacted with humans. In Celtic mythology, this was also the time that the Túatha Dé Danann (pronounced “Tua-de-dannen”) battled with the Foimoire. The ancient Celts celebrated the end of summer with bonfires, offerings of apples and hazelnuts, and “dumb suppers,” when ancestral spirits would be invited to share the table and meal with the living family.
Samhain is a Celtic holiday, but veneration of ancestors and spirits goes back to the beginning of human history. Many ancient cultures believed that our ancestors have the power to guide us and protect us after they’re gone, and some even believed it was possible for the living to reach the underworld. Most cultures have some kind of ancestral holiday or celebration, like the Roman Lemuria and the Chinese Qingming festival, both held in springtime. Contacting our ancestors and asking them for guidance, protection, or some kind of intercession in our lives is what makes Samhain and other ancestral celebrations so special.
Fire and Water at Samhain
Samhain is a fire festival. It may sound confusing to have a fire festival at the end of October, when most of the Northern Hemisphere is growing colder and darker – but this is exactly why fire was so critical during this time. Before electricity and central heating, the advent of winter meant that fires in the hearth were the only way to keep warm during the colder months. Firewood needed to be stockpiled before the snow came, and with shorter days and longer nights, fire provided the only light in the darkness.
Fire can also be dangerous, though, and with so much wood being burned indoors the risk of house fires was much greater in the wintertime. Thus fire was something to be honored for its usefulness, but also something to be respected and cautious about. Both aspects of fire were recognized at Samhain and were part of the fire festival. Fire magic is particularly potent at this time and during the other Celtic fire festivals (Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh).
Water also plays an important role at Samhain, with issues of purity as well as mythological associations arising at this time. In many mythological traditions, the crossing point between the world of the living and the world of the dead was a river, lake, or some kind of body of water. Crossing a body of water always signals change, as water is often a natural boundary between territories. Thus water can be a symbol of death, the afterlife and the underworld, and communication between this world and the next.
Just like fire, though, water has its dangers. In order to be safe to drink, water must be pure and free of contaminants. While water has always been a symbol of purity and is great for ritual cleansing, it is also easily tainted. Samhain is a festival of the dead, and ensuring that the dead don’t contaminate the water supply is a very real, if morbid, issue that comes up during this time. Like fire, water is both necessary and dangerous. When working with water at this time of year, it’s important to recognize both aspects of it.
“I embrace cycles of life, death, and rebirth. I am infinitely connected with and protected by those who came before me.”
- Decorate an altar to your ancestors, guides, and angels
- Practice divination and communicate with your oracle cards
- Carve pumpkins and drink apple cider
- Dress up in a costume!
- Host a feast and leave a place open as an invitation to ancestral guests
- Leave offerings for your ancestors like soul cakes (recipe below!) or their favorite foods/drinks
- Keep a gratitude journal for your ancestors and guides – in what ways are you grateful for those who came before you?
Samhain Recipe: Soul Cakes
Soul cakes are a popular Samhain treat enjoyed by the living and left as offerings for the dead. These simple cookies would be the perfect addition to an ancestral altar, as offerings left out for spirits like the Fair Folk, or just as a fun Halloween treat!
You can use any cookie recipe and any jam that you like for these soul cakes. The recipe below comes from our personal stash and uses a basic sugar cookie recipe with blackberry and rosemary jam.
Makes: 18 cookies
Time: 1.5 hours
- 2 c. butter, softened (4 sticks)
- 2 c. granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tbsp. vanilla extract
- 4 tbsp. baking powder
- 6 c. all-purpose flour
- Pinch of salt
- 4 c. fresh blackberries
- 1 c. water
- Several sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice
- Honey or sugar to taste
For the Jam:
1. Wash and dry the blackberries and rosemary. Add the blackberries along with about a cup of water to a medium saucepan. Bring the berries to a boil and immediately lower the heat to simmer (low heat, or setting 1-2). Allow the berries to simmer for 10 mins, stirring occasionally.
2. Finely chop the rosemary leaves and add them along with the lemon juice and any sugar or honey to taste to the berries. Allow the mixture to simmer, stirring occasionally, until it passes the “plate test.”
- For the “plate test,” chill a plate in the freezer for an hour or so. When you think your jam is ready, drip a small amount onto the plate. If it sets up, it’s ready. If the jam is still watery, let it reduce a bit more.
3. Let the jam cool completely (even overnight).
For the Cookies:
- Cream together the softened butter and sugar in a large bowl until completely combined (about 3 minutes in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer). The key to these soul cakes is to make sure the butter and sugar are completely incorporated and form a thick, paste-like consistency.
- Add the vanilla extract and eggs and mix another 3 minutes until light and fluffy.
- In a separate bowl, combine the baking powder, flour, and salt.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and combine, taking care not to over-mix. Overmixing will lead to tough cookies.
- Wrap or cover the dough and chill in the fridge for 30 mins.
- Once the dough has chilled, roll it out on a flat surface and cut out your circles. For the bottom layer of the soul cake, use the big cookie cutter to make large circles. For the top layer, use the big cookie cutter to make large circles, and then take the smaller cutter to cut out the centers.
- Place the larger cookies on a cookie sheet and stack the hollow cookies on top. Bake at 350˚ about 8 mins or until set but still soft. Allow the cookies to cool completely.
- When your cookies have cooled, add some of the fresh jam to the center of the top cookie, and you’re done!
Samhain Ritual: Ancestral Offerings and Messages
This ritual is simple but powerful. We’re going to bless and dedicate offerings for our ancestors before leaving them at our ancestral altar, and send messages beyond the veil on bay leaves.
- Cedar bundle
- Bay leaves
- Heat-safe container or cauldron
- Offerings for your ancestors (click here for ideas!)
- Black candle (or candle in a color that’s significant to your ancestors)
1. Cleanse your space and offering/s:
Begin by cleansing your space with a cedar bundle. Cedar is a powerful purifier and has been used to communicate across planes for centuries. Cedar is a great alternative to sage during the Samhain season, because sage gets rid of all energies, not just those that are unwanted. Because of this, it can potentially be too strong and unpleasant for any ancestral spirits who want to stop by.
Cleanse your offerings by passing them through the smoke of the cedar bundle. This will rid them of any unwanted energy, but won’t be so powerful as to be off-putting to spirits.
2. Bless your offerings:
To bless your offerings, all you need is yourself and your intention. These offerings are personal, so you don’t need anything fancy. Take your offerings in your hands and close your eyes. Take several deep breaths and relax for a few minutes. Visualize your whole body filling with a loving, glowing energy. Next, visualize that energy flowing into the offerings through your hands. If the offering is for ancestors you knew while they were alive, think of happy times shared, fun memories, anything that reminds you of them. If you didn’t know your ancestors, that’s okay – keep them in mind in whatever way is accessible to you. As long as you have the intention of offering to them, they’ll get the message.
Say the words, “I pour my love into these offerings and dedicate them to you, my ancestors, in the spirit of communion and connection.” You may wish to speak the names of the ancestors you’re making the offerings to, if you know them, but it isn’t necessary.
Place the offerings back on your altar and light the candle. The candle serves as a beacon of light, inviting spirits into the space to enjoy the offerings you’ve made for them.
3. Send messages to your ancestors:
Take the bay leaves. Write any messages you want to send to your ancestors on the bay leaves. You can dedicate a bay leaf to each ancestor, or simply write generalized messages to everyone.
Once you have your messages, burn the bay leaves in a heat safe container. As the smoke rises, the messages will be carried to the spirits of your ancestors as they come to visit your altar.
If it feels right to you, you can spend some time here after the ritual is complete and “hang out” with your ancestors while the veil remains thin.