Opposite to Beltane on the pagan Wheel of the Year, and celebrated on October 31, Samhain is a time of drawing inward and connecting to the spirits of departed loved ones. The progression toward winter is more pronounced, though some years it is mild enough for more daring celebrants to step into the circle barefoot one last time. Most often, though, it is cold enough to see one’s breath and a sprinkling of snow covers the ground. The darkness creeps in earlier each day, and the time of introspection has begun.
The Thinning of the Veil at Samhain
For many pagans, November 1 is the start of a new year, and they celebrate Samhain as New Year’s Eve. Samhain is also referred to as the “Feast of the Dead.” The period between the dusk and dawn on Halloween night is a time when the veil between this world and the next is thin, as it also is at Beltane, purportedly allowing the spirits of the dead to walk the earth.
Jeff McQueen, first-degree priest with the Wiccan Church of Canada, explains: “Samhain is all about ancestors — major about ancestors. It’s about going from light to dark and from living to death if you will. There’s a huge changeover. At Beltane, you’ve gone from dark to light, from death to rebirth or to birth.”
Culling the Herds to Survive Through Winter
In the past, Samhain was a time when herds were culled. With the approach of winter, people had the difficult task of deciding which animals to try to keep through the winter for breeding stock and which to kill off and preserve for the lean, cold months ahead. They had to strike a balance between killing too many and killing too few in order to survive the winter. If they made the wrong decision, it could cost them their lives.
Crops had to be harvested by Samhain, as, according to Janet and Stewart Farrar in their book A Witches’ Bible, a hobgoblin called the “Pooka” would ravage whatever crops had been left in the fields on Samhain night (122, Farrar). Traditionally, food and drink were left out for wandering spirits on Samhain night, and candles were left lighted in windows to help guide ancestors home.
Food and Drink for Samhain
In the past, Samhain was a time of feasting because there was plenty of fresh meat and crops from the fields and also because it was a time of uncertainty as well. McQueen says, “So there is the feasting due to the fact that you’ve culled all the animals; there is the uncertainty of not knowing if you’ve balanced it properly; and then there is the question of will you see friends and relatives come Beltane?”
Today, while most people don’t have to cull their herds to make it through the winter, many still draw friends together to celebrate Samhain, calling their ancestors to the feast. When asked what foods and drinks are popular at this time, McQueen responds, “Food-wise, obviously meats, from the whole aspect of culling your herds. Definitely apples. Pumpkins are popular and mulled cider. That’s a tradition at our rituals, starting at Samhain and going all the way through almost to Beltane. We’re outside no matter what the weather, so mulled cider in the chalice works well.”
Colors for Samhain are oranges, reds, and blacks — the colours of Halloween. Decorate your circle or home with these colours, and carved pumpkins are mandatory. While traditionally, lit candles were used in pumpkins, battery powered tea lights are cheaply available at dollar stores and are much safer to use when people are walking around in a ritual circle, or trick-or-treating kids are coming to the door down a darkened path.
A Circle for the Living and the Dead
McQueen sets up two circles for his Samhain ritual. The main circle represents the side of the living and the secondary circle represents the side of the dead. The two circles together form a figure eight, or the symbol for infinity. This ritual is McQueen’s most popular of the year, with perhaps only Beltane with its maypole drawing as many people. People step through the western gate into the realm of the dead during the ceremony.
McQueen explains: “As people come through the western gate and step over the besom, I light each one of their candles, and I give them the light to go in. On the ancestors’ side, we have a very large table/shrine. Then each individual, if he or she wants to, comes up and gets an apple. They make an offering of the apple; they take a bit for themselves and also a drink from the chalice. They hold onto their candle because their candle can’t go out. Once it’s all said and done, they come back through the gate, and I extinguish each of their flames as they go back to the other side.”
In this way, participants share a feast with their departed loved ones. In McQueen’s circle, each person silently calls in any loved ones they wish to call, but this is optional. The candles light the way through the circle of the dead and are extinguished as participants return to the circle of the living, where it is much brighter. Chanting accompanies the ceremony and contributes both solemnity and reverence to the ritual.
Samhain is a favourite celebration for many pagans, who look forward to connecting with their departed loved ones, including any pets that have passed. This time of looking inward helps participants to reflect on their lives and on the lives of those who have gone before. While many spend Halloween in more lively pursuits, such as trick-or-treating or visiting home haunts, others, such as those in McQueen’s group, spend it in quiet celebration. The next ritual, Yule, will be more festive.
Image: Alter for Ritual — Courtesy of Bob Tobin and The Hedge Witch
Farrar, Janet and Stewart, A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook, Custer: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1996 edition.
McQueen, Jeff, Priest, 1st degree, the Wiccan Church of Canada.
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