It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Samhain

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Samhain October 19, 2016

Everywhere you go
Take a look at the way back when reminding us once again
With photos and candles aglow.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Samhain
Offerings and even more
But the scariest sight to see is the pumpkin that will be
by your own front door.

I’ve said that Pagan Christmas starts in October. For a religious culture that often focuses on a six week religious observance cycle I am amazed at how many weekends are absolutely booked with rituals, observances, and social events revolving around this holiday. Usually for a month straight I, and most everyone I know, is busy prepping both for the secular Halloween celebrations and for the religious Samhain ones. The festivities and events often spill over into the first week of November, with a week or two to reset and get ready for Thanksgiving and then the ongoing rush of personal and community Yule celebrations and extended family Christmas obligations. The scheduling alone is exhausting, but it’s also wonderful. I take a great deal of joy in my traditions and I thought I’d share how I cope and arrange my family’s celebration season.

Victorian Postcard image of a classic witch riding a broomstick with a black cat.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library Picture Collection

Because I have two children and a husband who loves secular Halloween more than any other holiday, that is a big aspect of what we do. We start planning our costumes in September so I have enough lead time to gather inexpensive parts and fabric. This has begun to work better as the kids have gotten older. I remember one year my eldest wanted desperately to be the Heffalump from the Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. I made a costume out of grey sweatpants with hood including a trunk and giant floppy grey ears lined with pink felt. She hated it by Trick or Treat time and a great battle of wills ensued. (She won)

This love of Halloween has sometimes made me feel like Samhain gets squeezed to the side, left in the corner like the lovely Christmas present that is forgotten in the wake of the new video game system. For a number of years I competed furiously trying to get my children to engage with their ancestors. It was exhausting trying to do both at once. I still do, but I’ve found a simple solution:

I let Halloween take precedence until the 31st of October. The first week of November I take down the goriest of the Halloween decorations and stuff them back into their basement dwelling space leaving the pumpkins, leaves, and fall type decorations.   Okay, I also leave the giant posable spider. But come on, It’s a giant spider!

Then I pull out all the old photos, the knick-knacks, the letters and postcards from days gone by. We clear off a space in the main living area to make our Ancestor’s Altar and usually the kids are in a great space to share the experience since this is the calm between the holiday storms. The best part is that Ancestors fit in wonderfully with traditional Thanksgiving celebrations! Having photos of your beloved dead surrounding you while you celebrate family and giving thanks works really well, and allows me to feel better about my annual obligatory lectures on how the pilgrims weren’t all that great and here honey, let’s talk about Indegenous Rights, shall we?

So from Samhain to Thanksgiving I involve the whole family in offerings to the Ancestors. Usually a small plate of our dinner placed on the Ancestors Altar. This is quite the upgrade from my usual daily offering of a spoonful of coffee and takes a lot more management, since the coffee offering is small enough that it just evaporates and leaves an ink like residue on the bowl I’m offering it into. The food offerings have to be composted every day.

Ancestors altar with dark skinned statuette, blue bowl, bag of graveyard soil, list of honored dead, a cross, and a spoon made of shell.
Daily Offerings of Coffee for the Ancestors

After Thanksgiving we put up our tree (Last year I made a six-foot 3D tree out cardboard. Behold the glory!) The orange/purple/black theme gives way to the marching red and green hordes of nutcrackers and Odin Claus. If I can find room I will leave the Ancestors Altar up, but often it gets replaced by my grandmother’s paper maché nativity scene. Which is another sort of way to honor the ancestors, I suppose.

yewskull break

Here’s nine ways my family has honored the season of ancestors and death:

  1. Make photocopies of a bunch of ancestral tintypes and photos and let them cut them out and make paper dolls.
  1. Use those same photocopies and let little kids make their own ancestors altar by taping them to a window. Add in leaves pressed with wax paper and crayons, a string of orange twinkle light and it’s beautiful.
  1. Tell kids stories of their ancestors even if you don’t remember every name perfectly
  1. Go to the local cemeteries to give offerings at the graves there if you don’t have any family graves to tend. Flowers and bits of Halloween candy work very well for this. You know a kid is getting the message when they’re willing to share their Halloween hoard.
  1. Give offerings of dinner to the ancestors for a set period of time, like two weeks or a month. This spreads out your chance to make the foods your beloved dead would have liked, rather than having to cram it all in on one day.
  1. Set up a small ancestors altar by your coffee pot. If you only offer a small spoonful of coffee every morning it should dry out each day and never get moldy. The resulting residue that builds up in the bowl can be cleaned out annually or can be used as an ink for sacred writing. Just add water!
  1. If you don’t connect with your blood ancestors well consider honoring the heroic dead. I keep a list famous and historical people that I consider my heroic dead on my small coffee altar. Mine includes Harriet Tubman, Anne Frank, Bill Mollison, John Boyd, Octavia Butler and continues to grow.
  1. Take some time for quiet reflection. Every year, at some point, I start to notice the thinning of the veils. The shadows of the dead begin to gently move in our world. This is our chance to commune with them. Do so in safety, of course, make sure you are doing purification work, and meditating where you feel safe and comfortable. If you have difficult memories of your personal ancestors it’s okay to need help, both from friends and from professionals.
  1. Sing your beloved dead songs. They often love that. Not just ancestral chants either. If grandpa loved Queen, sing him that!
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