Although we Pagans and Witches celebrate many festivals throughout the year, Hallowe’en (which most of us call by its old Celtic name of Samhain) is the one that most people know about. Although of course, their concept of witches and what they get up to at this time of year is pretty far removed from ours!
Whilst I enjoy seeing all the Hallowe’en trappings in the shops, carving pumpkin lanterns and handing out sweets to trick-or-treating children, all of that has about as much relevance to the true meaning of Samhain as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has to the true meaning of Christmas.
For me, Samhain is about acknowledging our entry into the ‘dark’ part of the year (by which of course I mean literal darkness, i.e. shorter daylight hours!), a time for introspection and rest. It is also the festival at which I remember and honour my Ancestors and my Beloved Dead – I use the term ‘Ancestors’ to mean those who have gone before us, and ‘Beloved Dead’ to mean those ancestors and loved ones we actually knew from this lifetime who have passed away into death.
Under the term ‘Ancestors’ I don’t just include those to whom I have a blood relationship (although they are part of the group I consider to be my Ancestors). I also include Ancestors of Culture (i.e. those who shaped the society I live in) and ancestors of choice (i.e. those who have inspired me with their words, thoughts and deeds). After all, we are not shaped solely by our genetic heritage, and for those who have a problematic relationship with their family, or perhaps were adopted and know little of their family of birth, acknowledging and honouring only your Ancestors of Blood can be difficult or even painful.
Each Samhain I create an altar to my Ancestors of Blood, Culture and Choice, and my Beloved Dead. This is usually decorated in autumn colours, with fallen leaves, probably a carved pumpkin or two and plenty of candles. It will also have photos of my Beloved Dead; sadly, there are usually more of these each year, but I suppose that’s part of life and growing older. I also put out trinkets and mementos I have of them: Grandpa’s cuff link box, Granddad’s bronze Buddha statuette, Gran’s ring, Thomas the cat’s collar and name tag. And some years I put out little offerings of their favourite foods for my Beloved Dead – ice cream for my Nanna, a cup of tea for cousin Enid, tuna for my cat Julie. Doing this is part of remembering them, who they were, what they enjoyed in life, the times we shared together. Sometimes there are no treats or mementos – for my son Peter, who was stillborn, I have only an ultrasound photo. Yet the love is still there and he is remembered each year with the others.
The altar becomes a focal point for my ritual which is usually fairly simple, revolving around creating sacred space, honouring my Ancestors and inviting in any of my Beloved Dead who would like to be there. Pagans usually say ‘the veil between the worlds [of life and death] is thin at Samhain’ and so this is thought to be a good time to contact the spirits of the departed. I sit and talk to my loved ones, tell them what is going on, how I miss them, and reminisce about our times together. This is usually an emotional time, but I find it helps with the grief process and keeps precious memories alive.
Remembering and honouring my Ancestors and Beloved Dead at this time of year is important to me. We are, after all, stitches in a tapestry which stretches backwards and forwards through time. It is good to acknowledge our place in the warp and weft, the threads we are part of and those we interlink with, if only for a brief time. Glimpses of the grand over-all pattern are simultaneously humbling and inspiring. That for me is the essence of Samhain.
But having said that, I am not immune to the charms of Hallowe’en either. I’ll also carve pumpkins, buy sweets for trick-or-treaters, tell ghost stories by the fire, wear fancy dress for your Hallowe’en party and buy cute little witch ornaments. Because I’m a big kid at heart and I love Hallowe’en and all its funny-silly-spooky trappings too.
That’s who I am and some of the things I enjoy in this life. And if I’m lucky, one day when I have passed on into the Summerlands – or wherever it is we go – I will be on someone’s list of Beloved Dead, remembered with a place on their altar and an invitation to visit for memories, chocolate and time together at Samhain.