Contemporary Paganism is deeply rooted in a European past. For all of us who have some European heritage, those ancestors were pagan before the introduction of Christianity. Although modern Pagans draw on many non-European sources including the ancient beliefs and practices from Egyptian, Roman and Greek, Asian, Native American and African cultures, the native religions of pre-Christian Europe are our own heritage.
In this series, I will use the Wheel of the Year used by many modern Pagans to explore seasonal practices that you can incorporate into your life. I am using the generic descriptions of the seasons as if they apply to everyone. I know that they don’t. If you don’t live in North America or Europe, or if you live in certain areas of the United States, some of these descriptions of the seasons won’t make sense to you. Feel free to adjust my suggestions based on your own environment.
Samhain (commonly known as Halloween)
Samhain (October 31) is commonly known as the Pagan New Year, the day when the old year passes away, when the harvest had been gathered in and the fields remain fallow. For pagans, it is one of the Cross-Quarter Days tied to the cycles of our earth and sun. At this time, the Solar King has sailed over the sunless sea that is the womb of the Mother and steps ashore the Shining Isle. Now he becomes the luminous world egg, the seed of his own rebirth. Pagans say the gates of life and death, the veil between the world of the living and the dead, are thinnest during this time. The dead may walk abroad revealing the great Mystery to the living. The notion that every ending is a new beginning.
This is the time we remember our beloved dead, both those we know and those ancestors whose names are no longer known to us.
The colors of this season are the black and dark browns of the naked branches as well as the golden yellows of the last of the harvest, pumpkins and other gourds.
This is also to the time to return those elements of our lives that no longer sustain us to the Goddess as Mother Earth. If you need to eliminate something from your life, this is the time to give it to one of the elements: air, fire, water or earth. For example, burn it (or a symbol) or bury it. Then be sure to fill that empty part of your life or yourself with something positive. Nature abhors a vacuum and will fill that empty spot for you if you forget to do it for yourself.
Build a Samhain Altar
This is the time to stop and think about those who have gone on to the Summerland (or your understanding of the Afterlife). I have collected photos of my own beloved dead and always build an altar to them during this season. Such an altar need not be difficult or morbid. Put a picture or other token of each person you want to remember on a white cloth on a table, fire mantle or other convenient location. Put a symbol of the four directions (for example, a feather for East, a piece of wood for South, seashell for West and a stone for North). Add a candle and a glass of water, if you want.
You might want to include symbols of death and rebirth on your altar. Now is a perfect time to round out your collection of Jack lanterns, etc. One year I saw that a candy company was selling candy bones. There were like those candy hearts sold for Valentines, except shaped like skulls, and arms, and feet! Quite fun! You might also include eggs, pomegranates, snake skins, and other things that remind you that death is only one station on the Wheel of Life. Even if you don’t believe in spiritual re-incarnation, now is a good time to realize that the earth is the first recycler—when anything dies, she uses the remains to build a new life.
Some spiritualist traditions believe that spirits channel through water, so even a small glass shows your openness to communications with your beloved dead. A tall straight water glass or a curvaceous brandy sniffer would work well.
You can use your altar as a focus for your meditation. Concentrate on what those who have gone before have left you, on your own future death, and what that means to you today. You might also want to think about those portions of your life you need to let go of so you can grow and mature. Now is a good time to “sweep” your life clean by eliminating those things holding you back.
On the night of Halloween, cook foods your beloved dead enjoyed and leave a small plate for them outside the front or back door. Honor your dead by collecting food for the less fortunate and donating it to your local food bank. This is the time to share our harvest with both the living and the dead.
Since traditionally this the time that the veil between this world and that of the spirits is the thinnest, it is the easiest night to communicate with non-corporeal beings. You can use Tarot cards, candles, pendulums, crystals or mirrors as mediums for your communication. If you’re not familiar with any of those techniques, just sit quietly and “listen” to your inner voice. Many times all we need is a quiet time.
Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny. — Lao Tze