There are two holidays observed at this time of year, the most common is Halloween.
The lesser known and much older observance is “Samhain” (roughly translates to “Summers End”) which is the third, and last harvest festival in the “wheel of the year” for those of us who honor the old, earth based traditions.
Halloween (for me) is about costumes, parties, “haunting the house” and handing out candy to cute kiddies (and giving the older teenagers a good scare just for fun)
Samhain is a more somber observance for me.
I don’t care to mix the two (as a matter of fact, doing so is a huge pet peeve of mine and I adamantly refuse to do so), although most people who celebrate both do because it’s easier.
Because I don’t like to mix these particular holidays, one secular and one sacred, I tend to observe Samhain on the astronomical date, not on October 31st (My Celtic ancestors didn’t have our modern calendar, they used the sun, moon, and constellations, there was no “October 31st)
My observance is when the sun is 15 degrees in Scorpio; this year, that was last night, November 6th, which is well separated from “mundane” Halloween.
I baked “soul cakes” click here for an NPR bit on soul cakes and the recipe I used and left one, along with a small cup of whiskey on my dining room table for my ancestors and house spirits
(today, I’m pouring the whiskey and the cake under my Hawthorne tree in the back yard; the garden spirits like to be honored as well) and took the rest, along with a bottle of mead over to Molly’s for our observance.
We kept it informal with just our favorite elements of ritual.
First is the ancestor alter; people bring photos and mementos to place on the alter that represent/remind them of their ancestors and departed loved ones.
The candles representing the elements/deities are lit by those who are so inclined (these observances are mixed faith so we keep it comfortable for everyone)
Each person walks up to the alter and lights a candle in honor of their loved one(s) We tend to focus the most strongly on those who passed in the past year, but also honor all of our ancestors as we are moved. That person has the option of speaking about their ancestor/loved one or not.
We then have the “cakes” and “ale” (the ale generally being mead) which is passed from one person to the next with the words,”may you never thirst” and “may you never hunger”. This helps to “bring us down” (aka ground) us after what proves to be a very emotional experience. This year, the emotions were particularly strong. The chalice (OK, we used a martini glass last night) of mead and one of the soul cakes is then placed on the alter.
The final portion of our observance is the “ancestor scroll”; it is a long sheet of brown mailing paper on which we write messages to our ancestors and departed loved ones; we may also lay notes or any safely burnable/non toxic item including flowers and herbs on it as well. The scroll is then fed to the fire and we visualize the smoke sending our messages of love and gratitude.
This was our ancestor alter this year:
I also use this time of year to write down the changes I want to make in my life, one of the negative habits/elements/thought patterns I want to get rid of, and the other of the things I want to bring into my life. This being the time of year that is also my birthday, I set up my “birthday challenge” which is when I challenge myself to learn/do/try something new. Past challenges have included getting over the fear of singing in public, writing poetry, running a marathon, competing in a triathlon and learning to play the violin/fiddle. This year will most likely be a reboot of past challenges that fell by the wayside due to life circumstances including my violin/fiddle, running, and learning how to knit.
For those who are still confused, or think it’s “dark” or “weird” (seriously, look objectively at any religion’s rituals and they all have an element that would be considered “weird” by outsiders), I’m offering up part of a homily I presented at our Unitarian church ten years ago to show how similar this practice is to those observed by other world religions (the whole thing is too long to post here, this is just the snippet on Samhain for those who were/are unfamiliar)
If anyone would like the homily in it’s entirety, please let me know and I’ll send it to you.
*note that I don’t go into calendar versus astronomical dates; I wanted to teach the congregation what the holiday means, not pick nits… and the dates listed here are for 2000. 2010 dates may be different.
“Happy Celtic New Year”
by L. Lisa Lawrence
This Sunday night, giggling, eager children dressed up as: witches, pirates, and Harry Potter will; carve jack o’ lanterns, bob for apples and beg candy from neighbors. Adults and teenagers will decorate houses and attend Halloween parties. Some less evolved members of our society will engage in acts of vandalism such as the infamous Chicago “Devil’s Night” practice of setting abandoned houses on fire.
Others, who’s spiritual paths involve earth centered spirituality, will gather in sacred circles around bonfires or in private homes to; commune with the memories of departed loved ones, meditate, or ritually honor their ancestors. Some will set extra places at their tables. Tuesday, October 31st is not only Halloween, but also Samhain, Gaelic for “Summer’s End”. It is the celebration of the final harvest, and marks the Celtic New Year. Also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Day in the Christian church. Samhain is also found to have been celebrated in ancient Egypt and pre Spanish Mexico as the Festival of the Dead, a day to honor and commune with the memories, of departed loved ones and ancestors. It is still celebrated in many parts of the world today. A day to honor the dead, to talk to ancestors? The concept is alien to our society outside of funerals and memorial services.
Samhain is about celebrating our friends, family, ancestors, and significant members of our society and the way they’ve shaped our lives and communities. It is not about feeling sorry for ourselves, and what we perceive that we are missing. It’s about appreciating what we have been given, that still lives in our hearts and history. This New Year is the time to honor and celebrate our ancestors.
Even though Samhain is New Year’s Eve, it is not the beginning. The beginning comes on December 21st at the time of the Winter Solstice, when we celebrate Yule. The “gap in time” between Samhain and Yule parallels the time between the Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah, celebrated this year on September 29th, and Yom Kippur, celebrated this year on October 8th. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but the Day of Atonement, the actual new beginning is not until Yom Kippur. The time in between these two observances is the time to review the past year, and plan on the changes we will make in the new one.
As we approach this time of year, whether we call it Halloween, Samhain, or All Hallows eve, let us use this “gap in time” to search deep into our hearts and spirits, for that which is sacred. Let us learn from our past mistakes, and make plans for a brighter better future. Let us use this time, which is said to be when the veil between this world and the other world is thinnest, to allow the wisdom and love of our ancestors to enter our hearts and minds. Happy New Year!”