18 Ritual Themes, Customs and Traditions for Samhain, the Feast of the Dead

18 Ritual Themes, Customs and Traditions for Samhain, the Feast of the Dead September 26, 2018

Samhain is a magical time. I hope to honor it so I try to build my articles on the best scholarship available to me, and I try to be skeptical. I’m an untrained psychic from birth and have been a seer since I was a child. I never learned a methodology; it has always been with me. I believed in magic but was not sure about the gods for the longest. I was skeptical I could even say I existed philosophically, so how can I believe in the gods. And seership for me feels like a game of pretend where I imagine a false narrative and let my intuition describe it, and it matches your real story. So I was some blended believer in consciousness affecting reality, but that’s as woo as I got. That was before I had my experiences.

I can provide a list of textbook customs and traditions. But now I write not as a practicing lay scholar, but as a believer. I want you to be safe on spirit night. But also have the best spiritual experiences you can.

A Photograph of an Irish Wake which shares some customs we see practiced at Samhain.

A Short Summary of Samhain

Samhain is our holiest of times. Known as the third harvest because it rounds up and finishes the harvest season.

November 1st marks the time where the Samios, or summer power, yields to Giamos, or winter power throughout the year.

We celebrate it on the kalends(first) of the month, which shifted due to calendrical shift. People still celebrate Martinmas, the water foul slaughter holiday celebrated between November 11th and 12th.

Samhain means ‘Summer’s End’ and starts on Oiche Shamhna(EEha HOUWNna), or the Night of Summer’s End. Other names are Snap-apple night, November Day, November Eve, (Danaher 200), Sean-Samhain, Spirit Night, Oiche na Sprideanna, Puca Night(Rees 89). Afterward, unharvested crops belong to the fairies. To take it is considered stealing from them. The puca spit on blackberries to blight them (Danaher 200).

Samhain begins on the sunset on Oct 31st and serves to be the conclusion of summer. The night between days is seen as a liminal time. This starts just after the light of the sun can be seen.

The Gaulish name for it is Trinouxtion Samonii, meaning Three Nights of the End of Summer. So Samhain in Gaul was at least three days long.

As I’ve blogged before, this is a deliberate psychic exodus from the modes of living and being that go with summer(Kondratiev 112).

As we enter winter, we assume a restful, contemplative state of indoor affairs and reflection on indoor things. For me in Texas, the first frost is in Dec, so Samhain is when we enter the time of being able to go outdoors, and we cease our outdoor activities.

Embedded into the psyche is the cycle of the year. Ego is summer; Shadow Self is winter. Winter is a time for storytelling and introspection. Winter also, per my last article, deconstructs cosmos so that more chaos from the well of potential can be drawn in to build the next summer. Contemplative efforts bring us back to childhood before ego, identity, and the rationalization of our suffering took hold.

Our ancestors believed that the fairies visited every plant in every part of the land to give them a winter blast (Danaher 200). The crops were taken in before this date, and the animals were slaughtered (Kondratiev 121). Bloodletting as an offering to the spirits and Land was an important tradition, as an offering to secure fertility (123). And though the bird was typical, a pig was the most traditional meal on Martinmas Eve Nov 11, the regular date for Samhain pre-Gregorian calendar usage.

Tuathánaigh, or farmers, had to secure their livestock, their food, and health for the coming winter. All the corn, hay, potatoes, turnips, apples, and the like must be put away and stored or made into things that can be consumed or preserved (Danaher 206). The winter’s wood needs to be gathered and split. Just like Michaelmas, our ancestors reconciled remaining rents and debts and held market fairs as is customary for any harvest time.

Folks believed the inhabitants of the otherworld were busy at their work as well, moving about the land. People were ready to encounter a headless apparition called dallachán, fairies, a black pig, puca, white deer, and the like. Customary belief in these beings, often called hobgoblins, says they are at “high revel” (207).

1. Leave Food Offerings Outside

It was customary to leave plates of food right outside your door(200). This may be related to the bowl of candy left outside. Food offerings outside of doors helped the needy and the homeless per the themes of the other customs Danaher wrote about. Nearly every celebration of abundance is counterbalanced with some kind of charity for the poorer clan members. At Midwinter, offerings are left for ancestral, spirit, and Bethlehem travelers. It is customary to leave plates of food, dishes of butter and cheese, outside the door or on the window sill outside.

2. Light a Candle for the Dead

People would light a candle per diseased relative in the window where they died, in windows facing graveyards, and upon graves themselves to be left burning all night (201). Doors and windows were left open or unlatched as an invitation to deal loved ones (Kondratiev 117). The Slua or Host(of the dead, not the Slua Sidhe or Host of Fairies) would process through the tribe, each of the dead spirits stopping at the house of their kin, entering and sharing in the celebrations with their living family. Custom forbade that living people touch the food set aside for the dead. Anyone who ate it would not be allowed to receive their portion when they passed to the next world (118).

Candles in the windows, doorways, on tombstones and elsewhere, were used while praying, left to burn for the departed, and were extinguished or left to burn(Evans 89)

3. Protect Pets and Animals

Holy water was sprinkled on animals Samhain night (200). This is in direct opposition to driving your animals through the two fires at Bealtainne. Since references exist in Celtic paganism that pegs it as is a fire and water religion, this makes total sense that Samios energy is used to bless during the summer, and Giamos energy used right before winter.

People did apotropaic folk magic to protect their homes and animals, hanging a cross of plain wood over the door inside the barn or on the ground outside; holy water would be sprinkled across the threshold, and spit on animals thought to be plagued with illness by spirits (203).

4. Solicit the Aid of Spirits

People trying to solicit the help of spirits would find a briar that with roots on two ends and crawling under it while making their request, usually magical powers (203). At the end of the Harvest period, the fair folk are no longer compelled to comply by the gods of the tribe (Kondratiev 114). This means that if you want their aid, you must solicit or compel such bargains, as is consistent the rest of European traditional witchcraft where the spirits are sometimes cajoled or threatened into giving the magician aid.

5. Throw Dirt From Under Your Shoes

Folks could be fairy led or led astray on this night. To avoid this, they’d carry a black-handled knife, or have a steel needle stuck in his coat collar or sleeve, or turning their coat inside out (207). If you do run into the fairies, you can throw dirt from under your feet at them; they’ll be obliged to release you or anyone in your company.

6. Be Courteous, Throw out Water with a Caution

If you throw out the water, you are supposed to yell out “Seachan!” which means beware, or “chughaibh an t-uisce!” which means “water towards you.” especially if you throw out water on the west side of buildings where fairies process. This is all in avoidance of a fairy encounter by the use of custom and courteousness.

7. Make Samhain Crosses and Salt Wards

Parcells, or Halloween crosses, are 7-inch equal-armed crosses with a piece of straw woven under one arm then over the next (208). Each Samhain, the one above the door would be moved elsewhere like to the barn or another room, replacing it with the new one. Parents and grandparents place oatmeal and salt on the heads of children for protection.

8. Kindle a Bonfire

Bonfires are the ancient traditional way to bless a place from the ills of evil and mischievous spirits. Then, when the fires were burned down, the embers would be cast about, or thrown at the participants like a snowball fight.

9. Carve A Gourd, Turnip or Pumpkin

Most of the Samhain focus was rekindling all the hearths of the country from the king’s fire. Riders carried embers in lanterns made from turnips; we now call them jack-o-lanterns. Renewing the sovereignty of the tribe, druids kindled a sacred fire of sovereignty and distributed its power to all regions of the land (114). This fire most likely would last six months as fires were smoored and rekindled but never put out. Thus the king’s fire would remain until the next renewal period.

10. Properly Host the Dead with a Fire

In my modern practice, I consider Samhain to be from Samhain night to All Souls day. I roll in the all souls day practices into Samhain itself as it would have been there at one time. All Souls Day or Nov 2nd is when the dead visit, more so than on Oiche Shamhna.

They swept the floor, lit a good fire in the hearth, and the family goes to bed earlier than usual, leaving the door unlatched and a bowl of spring water on the table. This was “so that anyone who had died may find a place prepared for him at his fireside.” (228).

When the dead returned, though, they were seated around the fire. They set places around a fire, and when food was left out for the fairies, they put it in front of a fire (Evans 89).

11. Place Tools of Your Profession on the hearthstone, mantle, or near the fireplace.

In some regions, our ancestors placed their tools on the hearthstone, and a site was set for each of the familial departed Evans (89). Sometimes this was a matter of family pride since professions were handed down through generations. If this applies to you, go for it, if it doesn’t try one of the other customs which speak to you.

12. Hold a Feast

Feast, cream pancakes, stamps, apple cakes, nuts, and blackberry pies, ducking for apples (202).

Stampy are cakes made from raw potato, flour, sugar, caraway seeds, and cream. People call them boxty when they made them with cooked mashed potato (204).

Colcannon also called ‘champ’ or ‘pandy,’ is made of potatoes boiled and mashed, mixed with cooked green cabbage, raw onions chopped, sprinkled with pepper and salt (204). The two first plates of champ and mash were placed on top of a pier or pillar for the dead or the fairies as an offering (Evans 103).

Snacking on fruits, treats, nuts, and things was widely practiced as the availability of these things increased (205).

13.  Go in Disguise, Bring a Horse

Folks in costumes were called Vizards, Hugadais, Buachaillí Tuí and most commonly Guisers (214). Costume wearing goes back to at least traditional Christian Ireland. We can safely assume since we don’t know when it originated, that it is a wholly Irish and likely pagan wrought, as a cultural custom. So, who the hell cares. Wearing masks and going door to door asking for treats, nuts, money, cake, butter, bread, and apples was common in the cities and rural areas. Folks brought the gathered goodies together to a party. The guisers would wear masks that were painted and sometimes grotesque (210). The breaking of pots was almost considered a rite by these jokesters (Evans 73).

Some suspect this connects with Christmas caroling traditions. Horse imagery, likely from Iron Age horse sacrifices, is strong still in these customs, at least in the occurrence of a gang leader named Láir Bhán, White Mare, and accounts of children dressing like horses (214).

The hobby horse customs include dressing up like a mock horse and going door to door with the spirit of the season’s shenanigans, singing culturally handed down songs and charms.

Disguises create a maddening and scary atmosphere. However, some of the customs involved dressing as the opposite gender. The Welsh word for witches or hags is gwrachod. This is the same name used to describe those disguised. With people mimicking the heightened practice of magicians on Samhain night, there would have been an expectation of encountering these folks (120).

In modern times, it helps to get outside of yourself during this season. It’s not time to be offensive in the clothing of the opposite sex. It’s time to put yourself in their shoes and take on the identity.

14. Take part in Dares, Pranks, and Games

Interestingly, some Irish wake customs appear as Samhain practices. Irish wakes involved games if the person died of natural causes or old age. This included storytelling, riddle making, tongue-twisting, the ceilidh, horseplay, racing, practical jokes, to regular games like Hurley and others (214).

Gangs would bring horns and horn blowers around to farmers homes and extort treats out of them, blackmailing or threatening to cause mischief. The concept of Trick or Treat here is encapsulated. When they heard the horns, the folks inside would rush to get the whitebread or other treats ready and hand them through a half-opened door as the leader approached chanting in Irish (211). One chant goes as follows:

Seo, a mháighistreás,
Cuardaigh do phócaí
Agus tabhair rud éigineach do sna buachailibh,
Agus scaoil chun siubhail iad;
Nó buail mé féin idir an dá shúil
Le píosa leath-choróineach.

Now, Mistress,
Search your pockets,
And give something to the boys,
And let them go on their way.
Or hit me between the eyes,
With a half-crown piece. – Kinsale, Co Cork (212)

Folks on their way home from Samhain gatherings would clown around and place wheels on houses and do other shenanigans. Some folks would steal crops harvested and stage it as if the neighbor had taken it, or a drunken person had their face painted (202).

15. Ducking For Apples

Ducking for apples is so popular it acts as divination and a game. Ducking for apples in water is popular. Another game involves the household making a cross and on two of its arms, they placed candles. On the other two arms they apples jammed onto the other arms. A cord in the middle would hang it from the rafters (Evans 268). The cross was spun around in a circle, and folks tried to bite the apples and not the lit candles, getting a mouthful of liquid hot wax (Danaher 206). People who feared burns used potatoes instead of candles.

Alexei believes these practices involving waters, apples, the color red, white, and black are celebrations of the symbolism of the dead and the otherworld. Combine this with the cross and string, and candles, the two forms of ducking for apples put you through ordeals of Fire and Water (Kondratiev 119).

16. Pour Tin Through A Key, Troll Eye, or Hagstone

Melted lead poured through a key made omens with the resulting shape. Fortellings of Tool shapes like hats or guns spoke of a person’s vocation. This is consistent with Swedish Trolldom charm where lead is poured through a troll aurga or ‘eye’ which was a branch that split and then grew together, usually only found where to boughs on a tree pinch the third branch into an eye shape. In both customs, lead is poured into water, and people took omens on the resulting shape, probably for direction and other things (Danaher 202, 220).

We use tin nowadays because it has a similar melting temperature and is non-toxic. This video gives a demonstration.

17. Look for a Mate, Fortel Your Fate

In the presence of potential mates, things which were left undone, like spools of thread in kilns, or clothing to dry at a fire to see who would resolve them, such as re-spool the thread or flip the shirt (202). Casters of the thread would view it as ‘fishing,’ and if done out of a window, one would see who would tug on end.

Rings, nuts,  or a tiny boat in a fruitcake, the bairín breac, or the champ foretold of marriage or a journey. Bobbing for apples and coins was popular (202). Apples are the last fruit harvested of the season before summer is ritually closed (Kondratiev 118).

On occasion, someone would lace four plates with different things of varying value, and a blindfolded person would choose to know their fate for the coming year (219).

Qualtagh is a Manx custom wherein new cycles you characterize a new visitor to the home into intuition about the future of that cycle. I celebrate the new moon’s end or gealain, divine on it and call them the mini Samhain of the month.

On Samhain, people took omen in the wind at midnight, its strength and direction told of fruits of the winter season. The moon foretold of the storms and amount of rain of the season by the way it is covered, partial, fully, or not at all (218). A person drives a stake in the mud at the joining of two streams, and the next morning the clan elders would divine the weather from its appearance (Danaher 203,218).

18. Samhain Ritual Themes

  • Dissolution
  • Renewal
  • Hospitality with the Dead
  • Tribe contending with wild
  • Pure Warriors battling with Spirits
  • Living joining the dead
  • Shared Feasts
  • Merging of the First and Second Functions to secure a victory.
  • Divination & Seership
  • Timelessness
  • Mock Horse led Processions like the Muck Olla, the White Mare Láir Bhán(Danaher 213)
Danaher, K. (1994). The year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press.
Evans, E. (2000). Irish folk ways. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, p.Plate 15.
Kondratiev, A. (2003). The apple branch. New York: Citadel.
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