How to do Halloween – Or – Planning your Samhain Celebration
Well, it is quite fitting that my second post on my pagan blog should be about what some believe to be the biggest and most important Pagan celebration of the ritual year. I absolutely love Halloween, for many reasons. I love this time of year, when the nights close in and the darkness grows, making us retreat into ourselves, become more thoughtful and reflective. I love the sense of magic and power that surrounds this time, the symbolism, the resonance. Despite my annoyance at the commercialisation of Halloween nowadays (and who are we pagans to complain – look at what consumerism has done to Christmas!) I love the fact that it is a time of great power.
I have been celebrating this festival in my own way for three decades, and I have learned a lot over that time about how to honour the sacred during this time, and connect with the shifting and changing energies of the Earth and the season. I choose to use the term Halloween to describe this festival because I am not Irish, and this festival has another name in the Welsh tradition that I was adopted into at age 19.
This is the time when the veil between the worlds is thin. This fundamental concept is the basis of most beliefs about Halloween – that this is the time when the spirits of the dead, the ancestors, those who have gone before, are more likely to manifest. It is a time when there are fewer barriers between the seen and the unseen. This is based on a belief that there is life after death, that the human spirit does live on beyond the death of the body, that there other realms of existence that we can access, and that during this time, these realms spill over into our own. There are many myths and legends about this time, many explanations of this festival. It was the Celtic new year, making it an important time of transition for our ancestors. Times of transition were particularly powerful to the Celts, marking moments when much more was possible due to the gap between one state and the next. So the time between one year and the next was especially significant. Even those with little connection with psychism, spirits, ghosts, spirituality and the like may become aware of things beyond the limitations of corporeal senses at this time of year. Shadows shift unpredictably, faces peek from the decaying undergrowth. Amongst the dead leaves, spirits sigh and move. The nights seem full of messages, and of promise. Death is close.
For Witches and Pagans, much focuses on death and rebirth at this time of year. This is what the cauldron has come to symbolise, based on the cauldron of Ceridwen, a powerful archetype which symbolises death and the coming back to life of the individual. But this cauldron does not just signify physical death and life, it also symbolises spiritual death and rebirth, initiation, and in particular, the death of ignorance and the birth of new wisdom. The Crone, who is the Hag, the most popular image of the Witch and particularly evident in the non-Pagan representations of Halloween, is in fact the Wise Woman, the old woman, the Grandmother. Her Cauldron contains all the secrets of life and death, the wisdom of the ages. Enter it at your peril!
At this time of year, many Wiccans and Pagans take the opportunity to connect with their sacred past, and to honour not only their own ancestors, but those who died during the Burning Times, the time of the Inquisition when many women and men (often innocent) were murdered in the name of religion. These could include anyone who was considered a heretic by the Church. Estimates vary, but including a remembrance of those who died is common amongst the Witches that I have worked with. In some countries, such as Mexico, feasts of the dead are prepared, and altars are made to lost loved ones, onto which is placed their favourite foods and drinks, in the hope that the spirit will return and share in the celebration. It is about life in death, light in darkness.
And so to the practicalities. I was a coven leader for many, many years, and I learned the ways of two different traditions, before moving into my own comfort zone where I work alone. I have a certain way of approaching Halloween and celebrating this festival, some of which are common to every Circle I run, some of which are unique to this time of year. I hope that for some of you, this will provide insight into the beauty and power of this time of year and how honouring this transition time can help you grow and become the person you are meant to be. Honouring what must be left behind, accepting change, growing into new life, valuing the lessons of the dark – these are the keys to Halloween.
No festival should be approached without planning and preparation. I like to grow or buy pumpkins because they make good eating, and are cheap at this time of year. I like to plan a feast for after the ritual, as well as preparing for the ritual. In my tradition, every ritual is about a coming together of loved ones, and the cycle of the festival focuses on honouring every aspect of self. So each person attending makes food to share, one dish or item that is shared with everyone. This honours the earth, the Gods, and each other, as well as serving a magical purpose. After working together, moving and raising energy, our bodies need to Ground properly. Food, and wine (or its non-alcoholic equivalent) help to do this. But for me, bread and wine are also a sacred part of the ritual itself. The wine should be home made if possible – if not then organic wine is better as it has less of a negative psychic footprint. The bread is always home made.
The morning of the ritual, or, if I am working, the night before, I prepare my dish. For Halloween, I might make pumpkin soup, baked potatoes, or a big pan of bean chilli. Or all three (I love to cook). The thick, rich soup or a bowl of rib-sticking, fragrant, tangy chilli can be very warming and filling, and they are all cheap dishes and easy to prepare. If I am using pumpkins, I will scoop them out, save the flesh, and then carve them the day before. I may make cakes, such as pumpkin and apricot muffins. I will make wholemeal bread on the day of the ritual, which may contain pumpkin seeds or grated fresh pumpkin. I may make apple pie, or apple cake.
Before the ritual, I make my bread dough, and leave it to rise. I clean and prepare my ritual space, draping my altar in black and covering my Goddess figurine at the centre of the altar in a black cloth. This is an important part of the ritual. In many traditions, including Egyptian, the veiled Goddess is a key figure. Lifting the veil is a profoundly spiritual and powerful act. I put black candles on the altar, and set one aside in a special candlestick for midnight. I prepare the incense, usually a blend I have made myself (look out on future blog posts for incense recipes) and start the incense and smudge the room or space with the incense. This assumes an indoor ritual; if you have an outdoor space then you would spend this time packing up your ritual gear ready for outdoors. I always put apples on the altar at this time of year, and skulls, and seeds. My final act of preparation is to symbolically sweep the sacred space with my broom, to brush away any leftover energies and create a clean space ready to bring in new energies.
Once the bread is in the oven, and the food is cooking, it is time for the ritual bath or shower, with salt in the water. Salt is like psychic antiseptic. If you live near the sea, a quick dunk in the waves can serve this purpose. I then dress in clean clothes, and put my ritual clothes ready. I then open the wine, ensure the ritual space is ready, and deal with the last of the food preparations. Once my guests arrive, I then help them prepare for the ritual.
In my tradition, we fast before a ceremony. This has a number of purposes, the main one being to loosen the ties to the earthy sides of our nature, and make us more in tune with spirit. It is also a sign of sacrifice, something that we give up in order to gain. This resonates with many basic concepts of paganism, that there is no gain without giving, for example. So we will fast for the whole day. If you are someone who cannot go a whole day without food or calories, then an apple fast is suitable – just apples and apple juice all day. This is a great way of learning self-control and discipline, and the feast always tastes much better afterwards.
And so we prepare. No electric light burns in the ritual room now, only candles, and the incense is thick and fragrant, rich with herbs that enhance our psychism and our connection with Spirit. Each of us changes into ritual clothes, removes all shoes, underwear, all the trappings of the physical world. We remove all the world we can. This very act of changing changes US, because we become calmer, more focused, more connected with the sacred. Conversations stop, voices become hushed. I may play music or someone will drum as we enter the room. We create our sacred space by honouring an welcoming the powers of the five directions, using gesture, word and will, and then call upon the Powers – Gods and Goddesses. And then we honour this time of year by various means. We may look into the magic mirror as we welcome the ancestors, we may use divination to predict the future. We may write down all the things we wish to leave behind in the old year on new paper, and then burn these pieces of paper in the cauldron. We will link hands and raise energy, and recite chants and poems, sing songs and drum. At some point, we may focus on the Goddess, and lessons of wisdom and guidance, and one of us will lift Her veil, and may speak with Her voice, giving guidance and wisdom to the group. Or we may all sit in silence and hear Her voice within us. We will then bless the wine, which sits in a wide, deep chalice, and the bread, which is warm and fragrant on its paten, a ritual board. We will then pass the wine, one to the other, with a kiss and a blessing, and each person will raise a toast to someone they remember. We past the bread, person to person, and each breaks of a piece and honours the Goddess, life, and all that makes life possible, giving thanks for the food we are blessed with.
The wine keeps passing through the circle, and it is during this time that we honour the dead, talking of the loved ones we have lost, the ones we miss. We talk to them during this time, welcoming them to our circle, honouring and loving them, and talking of how they have changed our lives, and how we carry them with us. As the energy shifts, the blessings and toasts change, and people start talking about the future, about their wishes for the next year, their hopes, the ways in which they want to grow and change.
At the point when the energy has reached the right point, we stop, and rise, and give thanks and open the ritual space once again. We thank the powers of the directions, the powers of Gods and Goddess, the ancestors, the other spirits that have walked with us during this journey (such as totem animals) and then we gather up all the energy raised and send it out to a collective purpose. I always finish a ritual with the following phrase: “The circle is open, yet unbroken, may we all depart in peace and love. Blessed Be.” It works well.
After the ritual, we move to the feasting. We share the food, giving thanks to each other and the Gods for the bounty. Not having eaten all day, the food tastes better than any other meal. It becomes a social event, and again, there will be drumming, and dancing, and laughter. If we were outside, we would be sitting around a fire doing this; if a fire in the garden is possible, the ritual might have taken place indoors but we would move to be around the fire for the feasting, and for burning our papers of sacrifice. It depends on the circumstances. At the end of the ritual, regardless of location, a drop of wine and a piece of bread are taken out into nature, and cast out onto the Earth, in libation.
Finally, at midnight, I light the black candle of remembrance, to honour those who died in the name of religion. After 13 minutes, I snuff it out. And Halloween is over for another year.
Following such an experience, I always feel a range of emotions. I feel release, as I have moved the energies of grief and remembrance, and I have cried and mourned and moved on to celebrate life. I feel energised, as I have worked in a sacred space with the energies of Moon and Sky and Sea and Stars, and of Earth, our Mother. I have cleared the decks, at Halloween, and I am ready to move on and face and embrace new challenges. And I have enjoyed the connection with the sacred, the love of the Gods.
And hopefully, my friends have also remembered to help with the washing up!