Samhain is a time of endings and beginnings. Prounounced SAH-win (not Sam-hane), Samhain is a cross-quarter pagan holiday that falls on October 31st, the same night as Halloween. (In the Southern Hemisphere, it falls on May 1.)
The holiday — also known as All Hallows’ Eve, Feast of Apples, and the Feast of the Dead — is considered to be the beginning of the new year for many neopagans.
It’s also believed that the veil between the world of the living and the dead or between our realm and those of other spirits is so thin during this time of the year, it is virtually non-existent.
During this time, mischievous spirits — as well as honored family members who have passed on — may visit.
As a result, many Samhain rituals recognize the need to prepare for these ethereal guests. Here are some ways to celebrate Samhain, decorate your altar for the holiday, and a look into a bit of its history.
What is Samhain?
Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival that honors the ancestors who have crossed to the Otherworld and is the last harvest before winter. For Wiccans, it’s the most important of the Greater Sabbats and the time when the sun God dies, to be reborn later at Yule.
Like the other liminal holiday, Beltane in the opposite quarter of the year, ancient Samhain celebrations featured bonfires and feasting. However, in the Samhain festivals, revelers would cook food and prepare drink for the spirits of the dead, such as soul cakes.
Because of the thinned veil, it’s also the time where fairy spirits known as Sidhe (pronounced SHEE) could appear to humans and play tricks or cause problems with livestock.
One of these sidhe is the Cat Sìth that haunts the Scottish Highlands and takes on the form of a black cat with a white spot on its chest. If not given a bowl of milk, it’s believed the entity will dry up the udders of the owner’s cows. It’s possible that the Cat Sìth is why we associate black cats with Halloween.
Also during this time, according to Ronald Hutton in The Stations of The Sun, in Scotland and other locales, some would dress up in disguise and impersonate those sidhe or the dead in order to protect themselves from mischief. They’d walk through their village singing songs or reciting poetry at their neighbors’ homes in exchange for food, not dissimilar from how trick-or-treaters do today.
What are the Colors and Symbols of Samhain?
- Foods representing the final harvest, specifically apples, pumpkins, pomegranates, turnips, and cider.
- A cup of mugwort tea and soulcakes for those who have passed on.
- Black stones or crystals such as onyx, jet, and obsidian.
- Black or orange candles.
- A found animal skull or photos of your loved ones who crossed over.
- Fall plants such as acorns, oak leaves, heather, sage, and broomstraw.
6 Ways to Celebrate Samhain
1. Bake Soul Cakes
Making soul cakes is a sweet way to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed through the veil. Sharing special food with ancestors, relatives, and other friendly spirits is an ancient tradition that is practiced in many cultures.
2. Make a Scrying Mirror
Since communication with the spirit world is believed to be easier at Samhain, practicing scrying to see what images come through is common at this time.
Make a black mirror for scrying if you are crafty, or see what you have around the house. Shiny black surfaces and bowls of still water work well. If you turn off your mobile phone, its black surface also works if nothing else is available.
3. Bob For Apples
For a fun diversion from some of the more somber aspects of Samhain, there are a few traditional games involving apples. Hanging apples from strings or bobbing for apples has roots in marriage predictions.
For instance, peeling an apple in one long strip and throwing the peel over your shoulder was thought to show the first initial of the thrower’s future beloved.
4. Set up a Samhain Altar
Using the colors and symbols of the Samhain holiday, set your altar with photos of beloved dead who you would like to remember. Samhain is also a good time for symbolic cleaning and clearing out energy as the old year is ending and a new one coming in.
5. Carve a Turnip Lantern
Before pumpkins, the traditional vegetable to carve at Samhain was a turnip. If you want a truly grotesque and terrifying addition to your Samhain altar, find the biggest turnip you can. Hollow it out and add a face to protect your altar and keep away any unfriendly spirits.
6. Attend a Witches Ball or Gather With Your Coven
Some celebrate Samhain by gathering at events like the Pittsburgh Witches Ball to celebrate the previous year and honor ancestors. These modern events often have bonfires and music, and participants dress up for the occasion.