Samhain is the pagan celebration of the end of harvest season and the festival of the dead. In the northern hemisphere the holiday is typically celebrated the night of October 31st, though it can be celebrated any time between October 25th and November 6th depending on the phase of the moon and how strictly you follow the pagan calendar.
Though Halloween may have originally been based on pagan or Celtic harvest celebrations it hasn't been anything more than a commercial holiday for several generations. Despite what you see in movies and on television Samhain and Halloween are clearly no longer intertwined in any way, which is obvious when you consider that one is about celebrating your ancestors and the other sometimes involves wearing a sexy candy corn costume.
Everybody knows how to celebrate Halloween. Eat a bunch of candy and drink a pumpkin-flavored beverage while wearing a scary and/or sexy costume at a party and you've pretty much hit the Halloween trifecta. Add a scary movie and a trip to a haunted house and you've got an awesome way to spend October! But what if you want to celebrate Samhain too?
There are several traditional ways to celebrate Samhain this year. If you are looking for an authentic Samhain celebration you might consider one or more of these terrific ideas:
Feast of the Dead
One of the biggest Samhain traditions is known as the Feast of the Dead. Kind of like Thanksgiving for the spirit world, the Feast of the Dead is a big celebratory meal for all of the people who came before you.
Most pagans set an extra place for their ancestors, putting servings of food on the plate as an invitation to the dead to join their feast. It’s a perfect time to try out some new, delicious Samhain recipes and then share the fruits of your labor with loved ones. Once the meal is over the food is often set out in a natural place as an offering to the deceased.
For some this is a somber occasion with quiet contemplation and a completely silent meal, sometimes referred to as a Dumb Supper. For others this is an exciting experience where you serve the favorite foods of your loved ones who have passed on and share memories of those you love who are no longer with us.
This practice isn't just limited to pagans. Many populations around the world including Pacific Islanders, Peruvians, the Ancient Romans, and multiple European cultures all have some version of a Feast of the Dead as part of their cultural celebrations.
Many Buddhists and Taoists also have a similar celebration called the Ghost Festival where they prepare elaborate meals and set places for the deceased, making this a much more common practice than you might think.
Build a Bonfire
Bonfires are fairly common among pagan celebrations. There are four fire festivals celebrated throughout the year, one of which is Samhain, and given the cool, crisp weather in the northern hemisphere during this time of year it isn't surprising that an epic bonfire is often part of the festivities.
Some pagans practice Bonfire Magic, writing down habits they want to change over the next year and throwing the paper into the fire to rid themselves of them. Others burn small gifts to the gods in the flames of the Samhain bonfire or use the flames (or charred remains left the next day) for divination.
If you don't have the space for a huge bonfire you can also light a fire in a fireplace or simply light a candle if that is all you are able to do this year. When it comes to fire ceremonies safety is more important than size!
Share Stories of Your Ancestors
Given that the holiday is predominantly about celebrating the dead, Samhain is an excellent time to share happy memories of your loved ones who have passed away. Sharing stories of the times you spent with your ancestors is a wonderful way to honor their memory and keep their legacy alive.
This is also an excellent time to encourage older family members to write down or make a video recording of the stories that would otherwise be lost when they are no longer around to tell them. Your grandmother will have a very different set of stories to tell about her mother than you have to tell about your great grandma even if you are both talking about the same person, making everyone's contributions to the conversation necessary and enlightening.
If you are someone who doesn't have much in the way of family stories to tell this is an excellent time to learn about your religious ancestors as well. While there are plenty of active pagans alive today (including Dylan Sprouse and the president of Latvia, to name just two) there are many more pagans with amazing stories who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago that you can spend some time learning about this year.
For example, you could learn about Boudicca, a warrior queen who defended Britain against the Romans almost 2,000 years ago, or Widukind, a Saxon hero who fought against Charlemagne and was forced to convert to Catholicism after being defeated in the Saxon Wars.
Whether you decide to honor the people who came before you through your direct family lineage or those who shared your faith hundreds of years ago (or both, if you so choose) there are lots of ways to enjoy a traditional Samhain celebration.
What are some of your favorite ways to celebrate Samhain?