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All About Samhain

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The fields are bare, the leaves have fallen from the trees, and the skies are going gray and cold. It is the time of year when the earth has died and gone dormant. Every year on October 31 (or May 1, if you're in the Southern Hemisphere) the Sabbat we call Samhain presents us with the opportunity to once more celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth. For many Pagan traditions, Samhain is a time to reconnect with our ancestors, and honor those who have died. This is the time when the veil between our world and the spirit realm is thin, so it's the perfect time of year to make contact with the dead. You may want to take a moment to read up on: Samhain History Rituals and Ceremonies Depending on your individual spiritual path, there are many different ways you can celebrate Samhain, but typically the focus is on either honoring our ancestors, or the cycle of death and rebirth. This is the time of year when the gardens and fields are brown and dead. The nights are getting longer, there's a chill in the air, and winter is looming. We may choose to honor our ancestors, celebrating those who have died, and even try to communicate with them. Here are a few rituals you may want to think about trying for Samhain -- and remember, any of them can be adapted for either a solitary practitioner or a small group, with just a little planning ahead. Samhain Prayers A Ritual to Celebrate the Harvest's End Ritual to Honor the Forgotten Dead Samhain Rite to Honor the Animals Simple Ancestor Ritual for Families with Children Samhain Ceremony to Honor the Ancestors God and Goddess Ritual for Samhain Celebrate the Cycle of Life and Death Plan a Samhain Cemetery Visit Samhain Ancestor Meditation Decorating Your Altar for Samhain Samhain Altar Photo Gallery Share Your Altar Photo Samhain Magic, Divination and Spirit Work For many Pagans, Samhain is a time to do magic that focuses on the spirit world. Learn how to properly conduct a seance, how to do some Samhain divination workings, and the way to figure out what a spirit guide is really up to! Samhain Divination How to Hold a Seance 4 Types of Spirit Guides How Do I Find My Spirit Guide? Spirit Guide Warning Signs Getting Rid of Unwanted Entities Ghosts, Poltergeists and Hauntings Pagans and Death Should I Use a Ouija Board? Hold a Dumb Supper: Feasting with the Dead Make a Scrying Mirror How to Make a Witch Bottle The Magic of the Samhain Needfire Traditions and Trends Interested in learning about some of the traditions behind the celebrations of the late harvest? Find out why Samhain is important, learn why black cats are considered unlucky, how trick-or-treating became so popular and more! Bat Magic and Legends Black Cats Cailleach Bheur, the Hag Caring for Our Dead Chrysanthemum Folklore & Magic Death and Dying by guest author Ray Buckland Deities of Death Magical, Mysterious Spiders Mexico's Day of the Dead Jack o'Lanterns Nut Crack Night Owl Folklore and Legends Reader FAQ: Pagans and Halloween Samhain: Nope, Not a God Are Green-Skinned Witch Decorations Offensive? Samhain Superstitions Tricks or Treats? Where Are All the Vampires? Woolly Bear Caterpillars & Winter Weather Forecasts 9 Spooky Poems for Samhain The 12 Days of Samhain Song Crafts and Creations As Samhain approaches, decorate your home (and keep your kids entertained) with a number of easy craft projects. Start celebrating a bit early with these fun and simple ideas that honor the final harvest, and the cycle of life and death. 5 Easy Samhain Decorations Magical Samhain Goodie Bags for Pagan Kids Samhain Spirit Incense Set up an Ancestor Shrine Make an Ancestor Altar Cloth Make Your Own Headstones Make a Group of Ghosties Make a Grave Rubbing The Samhain Straw Man Make an Apple Garland Make a Kitchen Witch Craft Project Pumpkin Candles Samhain Skull Garland Silver Bell Branch Painted Pentacle Pumpkins Make a Samhain Terrarium Jar Feasting and Food No Pagan celebration is really complete without a meal to go along with it. At Samhain, celebrate with foods that celebrate the final harvest, and the death of the fields. Make Soul Cakes for Samhain Ghost Poop Orange Creamsicle Fudge Day of the Dead Sugar Skulls Roasted Pumpkin Seeds Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake The Banshee: Mulled Wine for Halloween Black Cat Cookies Candy Corn Fudge Savory Pumpkin Soup Butternut Squash with Apple Casserole Jack O'Lantern Quesedillas Paganism/Wicca Expert Samhain is the time of year when many Pagans and Wiccans celebrate the cycle of life and death. This Sabbat is about the end of the harvest, the calling of the spirits, and the changing aspects of the god and goddess. Try some or even all of these ideas -- obviously, space may be a limiting factor for some, but use what calls to you most. Colors of the Season: The leaves have fallen, and most are on the ground. Halloween History This is a time when the earth is going dark, so reflect the colors of late autumn in your altar decorations. Use rich, deep colors like purples, burgundies and black, as well as harvest shades like gold and orange. Cover your altar with dark cloths, welcoming the coming darker nights. Add candles in deep, rich colors, or consider adding an ethereal contrasting touch with white or silver. Symbols of Death: Samhain is the time of the dying of the crops and of life itself. Add skulls, skeletons, grave rubbings or ghosts to your altar. Death itself is often portrayed carrying a sickle or scythe, so if you've got one of those handy, you can display that on your altar as well. Some people choose to add representations of their ancestors to their Samhain altar - you can certainly do this, or you can create a separate ancestor shrine. The Harvest Ends: In addition to symbols of death, cover your Samhain altar with the products of your final harvest. Add a basket of apples, pumpkins, squash, or root vegetables. Fill a cornucopia and add it to your table. Other Symbols of Samhain: Mulled wine Dried leaves, acorns and nuts Dark breads Ears of corn A straw man Tools of divination or spirit communication Offerings to the ancestors Statuary of deities symbolizing death See what other readers have done with their altars: Samhain Altar Gallery What is Samhain?: Samhain is known by most folks as Halloween, but for many modern Pagans it's considered a Sabbat to honor the ancestors who came before us, marking the dark time of the year. It's a good time to contact the spirit world with a seance, because it's the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. Myths and Misconceptions: Contrary to a popular Internet-based (and Chick Tract-encouraged) rumor, Samhain was not the name of some ancient Celtic god of death, or of anything else, for that matter. Religious scholars agree that the word Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") comes from the Gaelic “Samhuin,” but they’re divided on whether it means the end or beginning of summer. After all, when summer is ending here on earth, it’s just beginning in the Underworld. Samhain actually refers to the daylight portion of the holiday, on November 1st. All Hallow Mass: Around the eighth century or so, the Catholic Church decided to use November 1st as All Saints Day. This was actually a pretty smart move on their part – the local pagans were already celebrating that day anyway, so it made sense to use it as a church holiday. All Saints’ became the festival to honor any saint who didn’t already have a day of his or her own. The mass which was said on All Saints’ was called Allhallowmas – the mass of all those who are hallowed. The night before naturally became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually morphed into what we call Halloween. The Witches' New Year: Sunset on Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The old year has passed, the harvest has been gathered, cattle and sheep have been brought in from the fields, and the leaves have fallen from the trees. The earth slowly begins to die around us. This is a good time for us to look at wrapping up the old and preparing for the new in our lives. Think about the things you did in the last twelve months. Have you left anything unresolved? If so, now is the time to wrap things up. Once you’ve gotten all that unfinished stuff cleared away, and out of your life, then you can begin looking towards the next year. Honoring the Ancestors: For some of us, Samhain is when we honor our ancestors who came before us. If you’ve ever done genealogy research, or if you’ve had a loved one die in the past year, this is the perfect night to celebrate their memory. If we’re fortunate, they will return to communicate with us from beyond the veil, and offer advice, protection and guidance for the upcoming year. If you want to celebrate Samhain in the Celtic tradition, spread the festivities out over three consecutive days. You can hold a ritual and feast each night. Be flexible, though, so you can work around trick-or-treating schedules! Samhain Rituals: Try one -- or all -- of these rituals to celebrate Samhain and welcome the new year. Celebrating the End of the Harvest Samhain Ritual for Animals Honoring the Ancestors Hold a Seance at Samhain Host a Dumb Supper Honor the God and Goddess at Samhain Celebrating the Cycle of Life and Death Ancestor Meditation Halloween Traditions: Even if you're celebrating Samhain as a Pagan holiday, you may want to read up on some of the traditions of the secular celebration of Halloween: Black Cats Jack O'Lanterns Trick or Treating Paganism/Wicca Expert A reader says, “I’m in charge of hosting my group’s annual Samhain event this year, and we’re going to make it a kid-friendly celebration because most of us have children, from preschool age to young teens. I’ve already read the article about having a Samhain Ancestor Ritual for Families With Kids – we’re totally going to do that – but I was wondering about something else. I’d like to send each child home with a goodie bag – but not the typical Halloween bag full of candy and lame plastic toys. What I’m hoping to include is some stuff that is representative of our Pagan spirituality. Any suggestions?” First of all, I think this is an awesome idea! I also think the key here is to do some creative, outside the box thinking. Sure, there are a ton of Halloween decorations in the store at this time of year, but not all of those are really connected with Pagan religious belief systems. They’re really more about the secular celebration of Halloween, which is fine, unless you’re looking for kid-friendly stuff that honors Pagan spirituality. Here are a few things I’d suggest: You can decorate the bags themselves with symbols that are meaningful to you – depending on the pantheon your group honors, you might include designs that are associated with Greek, Roman, Celtic, or Norse mythology. Small herbal sachets: make a miniature version of the Lavender Dream Pillow, sewing herbs into a sachet. Crystals and gemstones: As long as the kids attending your event are beyond the put-everything-in-your-mouth stage, you could include rose quartz for love, hematite for protection, and more. A Portable Altar Kit: Depending on how old the kids are, think about making an altar box that fits in a backpack or pocket. This might not be useful or safe for really young children – we don’t want to be handing sharp things to preschoolers – but older tweens and teens could probably use it responsibly. Divination tools: You can make a simple pendulum with a stone wrapped in wire and attached to the end of a chain. You can also make a simple divination set by painting symbols on stones or wooden discs. Wands: Make a simple wand with a stick and a crystal wrapped in wire. Deity symbols: Does your tradition honor a particular god or goddess? Consider adding representative symbols – owls for Athena, cats for Bastet, or an antler for Cernunnos. Another option could be to print out a wallet-size image of the deity on heavy cardstock, add a prayer to your god/dess on the reverse side, and laminate it. Finally, remember, Samhain is the same day as Halloween, so never underestimate the power of a few strategically placed pieces of delicious candy! More Samhain Craft Project Ideas Skull Garlands Samhain is a time to celebrate the cycle of life and death, and one symbol that appears regularly is the skull. This Day of the Dead inspired garland is one you can put together easily and hang around your home. Make a Group of Yard Ghosts Yard ghosts are a fun and easy project you can use to decorate your outdoor space at Samhain. They're not hard to assemble, and won't cost you a lot of money either. Here's how to make your own group of ghosties! Make Your Own Headstones Samhain's here, and it's a lot of fun to set up a graveyard of your own. Instead of burying pesky neighbors, just make these easy headstones with a bit of insulation board and some creativity. Make them silly or spooky, it's up to you when you make your own headstones! Apple Garlands This easy apple garland is a great decoration for your home. Make one in time for Samhain, an bring the scents of fall in for the celebration! Here's how to make an apple garland. Paganism/Wicca Expert If you’re raising kids in a Pagan tradition, it can sometimes be hard to find rituals and ceremonies that are both age appropriate and celebrate the aspects of the particular Sabbat. Factor in that small children tend to have a shorter attention span, and the days of standing in a circle for an hour watching someone chant are pretty much out of reach. That said, there are plenty of ways you can celebrate the different Sabbats with your children. Wiccan Spells Pagan Wheel of the Year This ritual is designed to celebrate Samhain with younger kids. Obviously, if your children are older, or you have younger kids who are very focused and mature, you may not need a “kids ritual.” However, for those of you that do, this is a rite you can complete, from start to finish, in about twenty minutes. Also, keep in mind that you are the best judge of what your child is ready for. If he wants to paint his face, bang a drum and chant, let him do so - but if he'd rather participate silently, that's okay too. One of the best ways to have a successful ritual with small children is to do the prep work ahead of time. This means that instead of doing stuff while they stand there fidgeting and playing with their shoelaces, you can work in advance. For starters, if your family doesn’t have an altar for Samhain yet, set it up before you begin. Better yet, let the kids help you put things on it. Use a basic altar setup for this ritual - feel free to raid your Halloween decorations for ghosts, witches, skulls, and bats. If your kids are old enough to not burn the house (or themselves) down when near an open flame, you can use candles, but they’re not required for this ritual. A nice alternative is the small LED tealights, which can go on your altar safely. In addition to your Samhain decorations, place photos of deceased family members on the altar. If you have other mementos, such as jewelry or small heirlooms, feel free to add those. Also, you’ll want an empty plate or bowl of some sort (leave this on the altar), and a bit of food to pass around as an offering - if you’re working with kids, you might want to have them help you bake bread ahead of time for ritual use. Finally, have a cup with a drink in it that the family can share - milk, cider (always a great option in the fall), or whatever you may prefer. Obviously, if someone is sporting a cold or runny nose, you might wish to use individual cups. If your tradition requires you to cast a circle, do so now. Keep in mind that not all traditions do so, however. Gather your family around the altar, and ask each child to stand quietly for a moment. You can use the word “meditate” if your kids know what that means, but otherwise just ask them to take a few minutes to think about the different family members that have crossed over. If your child is too young to know anyone who has passed away - and that happens a lot - that’s okay. They can simply think about the family they have now, and all the living people who are important to them. A quick note here: if your child has recently lost a pet, feel free to encourage them to think about that deceased pet. Fido and Fluffy were just as much a part of your family as anyone, and if it comforts your child to think of them at Samhain, let them do so. You may even wish to put your deceased pet’s photo on the altar next to Grandma and Uncle Bob. After everyone has taken a moment to think about their ancestors, and before anyone starts to fidget, begin the ritual. Parent: Tonight we are celebrating Samhain, which is a time when we celebrate the lives of the people we have loved and lost. We are going to honor our ancestors so that they will live on in our hearts and memories. Tonight, we honor [name], and [name]. Go through the list of specific people whom you wish to honor. If someone has died recently, start with them and work your way back. You don’t have to unleash the names of every single person in your family tree (because it could be Yule before you finish), but it’s important to mention the people who have had the most impact on your life. If you want, to help the kids understand who everyone was, you can go into more detail as you name the ancestors off: “Tonight we honor Uncle Bob, who used to tell me funny stories when I was a kid. We honor Grandma, who lived in a cabin in Kentucky where she learned to make the best biscuits I’ve ever had. We honor cousin Adam, who served in the Army and then bravely fought cancer before he crossed over…” Once you’ve named off all of the ancestors, pass the plate of food around so each family member can take a piece. These are to be used as offerings, so unless you want little Billy sneaking a bite out of his, you might want to forgo cookies in favor of plain bread, broken into chunks. After each family member has a piece of bread (or whatever) for their offering, everyone gets to approach the altar, one at a time. Adults should go first, followed by the oldest child, working down to the youngest. Invite each person to leave their offering on the altar on a plate or bowl for the ancestors. As they do - and here’s where you get to lead by example - ask them to send up a prayer to the gods of your family’s tradition, the universe, or your ancestors themselves. It can be as simple as, “I leave this bread as a gift for those who came before me, and thank you for being part of my family.” If you wish to name individual ancestors, you can, but it’s not necessary unless you want it to be. For smaller children, they may need some help with putting their bread on the altar, or even with verbalizing their thoughts - it’s ok if your little one just puts their bread on the altar and says, “Thank you.” After everyone has made their offering on the altar, pass the cup around the circle. As you pass it, you can say, “I drink in honor of my family, of the gods, and of the bonds of kinship.” Take a sip, and pass it to the next person, saying, “I share this with you in the name of our ancestors.” Once everyone has had their turn, replace the cup on the altar. Ask everyone to join hands and close their eyes for a moment. Parent: Ancestors, family, parents, brother and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, we thank you. Thank you for joining us this Samhain night, and for helping to shape us into who we are. We honor you for that gift, and thank you once more. Take a moment for quiet reflection, and then end the rite in whatever way works best for your family. Be sure to read about: Honoring the Ancestors When You're Adopted For more seasonal rituals you can perform with children, be sure to read: Pagan Rituals for Families With Children.