Fall is in full swing, and amongst the most anticipated parts of autumn is that spooky time of year we know as Hallowe’en! This first holiday of the season has become a commercialized and secular occasion, far from its original intentions. In this article, we will be exploring the roots of this holiday and how it’s been celebrated, past and present, all around the world.
According to the ancient Gaelic calendar, the Celts celebrated October 31st as their new year, which they called Samhain, pronounced Saow-win (souən), meaning “Summer’s end”. It’s a time to banish any negativity that happened in your past to make way for a fresh start.
The Celts, much like the Indigenous Aztecs in Latin America, and Tagalog traditions in the Philippines, all believed this was the time of year where the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest, allowing souls of those passed on to cross into our realm and return home1. All of these cultures practice similar customs, including the preparation of an altar, and leaving lit candles in windows to welcome spirits home. This holiday is first and foremost a time to honour the deceased, and celebrate that there can be no life without death.
Días de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the Dead’, originating in Mexico and celebrated across Latin America, had the same fundamental belief that this was a joyous celebration, as it was believed that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness. When the Taboo of death is overcome, fear can be overcome. The idea is not to fear death, but to accept it as a natural process and a journey to an uncertain but beautiful next phase of the spirit.
How Do You Celebrate this Holiday?
Like any other holiday or Sabbat2, this celebration is shaped by personal traditions, culture, heritage and personal preference. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate this time of year. Given your current circumstances, you may be able to enjoy outdoor activities, but knowing that many of us will be stuck at home this year, we’ve got you covered!
Visit a local farm to pick pumpkins & gourds, or other local produce. Fun fact - Jack O'Lanterns were traditionally made from potatoes, parsnips or turnips, since they didn’t have pumpkins in Ireland. Having a bonfire is a Pagan tradition on Samhain as part of a feast, or to practice divination (more on this later).
Carving pumpkins is a classic, originating from the Pagan tradition to leave outside your doorstep to let negative spirits know they are unwelcome.
Samhain is a great night to practice or try spellwork & ritual work like love or sex spells, spells for protection, hope and power. Cauldrons are another tool you can work with to burn incense or brew potions. They are believed to be a symbol of inspiration & rebirth.
Decorate your Altar
The purpose and intention behind your altar will change depending on the time of year. In Días de los Muertos tradition, an altar or offrenda, traditionally made of seven steps, is prepared to pay respect to loved ones who have passed away. Items they would place on the altar include3:
- Relics of the deceased like photos, memorabilia, clothing, or toys if they were a child
- Epitaphs - short text or poem honoring the deceased person
- Flowers, typically yellow, which represent the light to guide spirits back home
- A vase of water and/or a mirror, which they believed was the way to see the deceased across the veil
- Pan de Muerto, a type of bread representing the body
- Sugar cane representing the skeleton, placed in the shape of a cross
- Papel Picado, a decorative craft made by cutting elaborate designs into paper, and hung in rows to represent the threshold between the living and the dead.
The Pagan Samhain tradition shares many of these altar items in common, with some additions:
- Crystals like Black tourmaline, smokey quartz, obsidian, onyx, or jet
- Incense to burn or oils to diffuse like myrrh, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, sweetgrass, herbs you’ve harvested from your garden like rosemary, mint, mugwort, apple leaf & bay leaf
- Candles: black (to entice spirits to find warmth), silver (representing the moon), gold (representing the sun), white (to guide souls back to the spirit realm after the veil has closed), and orange (representing the current state of the earth in autumn)
- Natural items found outside that were ethically sourced to honor the loss of nature, and celebrate the life that it lived. These can include autumn leaves, acorns, pine cones, twigs or branches, animal bones and feathers. Skulls serve as a symbol to work with the mind, representing the physical form of an ancestor.
Practice (or try!) Divination
Divination is the art of reading energy & subliminal cues, welcoming the subconscious or supernatural into this dimension. It is often performed with tools like Tarot and Oracle Decks, or Runes. Another popular method of divination is known as scrying - the practice of looking into a medium in hopes of detecting and manifesting significant messages or visions. This can be done with a mirror, a bowl of water, tea leaves, crystals, fire, or smoke using an incense stick or smudge wand. You can even do this by watching the clouds in the sky! Embrace your inner child and interpret what you see, and how it relates to what you are working through in life.
Have a feast!
It is a harvest festival after all! It is customary to enjoy meat at this time of year since it is traditionally the time of slaughter, but if you are vegetarian or vegan there are many other options that are local and in season where you live. If you are in Ontario some great options include pumpkin, pumpkin spice, pumpkin seeds, squash, beets, parsnips, apples, potatoes, corn, oats, barley, bread, roasted nuts and chestnuts. Pair them with beverages like hot tea, mushroom elixirs, apple or pear cider, mulled wine and ale. Fill your home with the comforting aromas of autumn using spices like ginger, cinnamon, and cloves.
If you want to invite a deceased loved one to your feast, you can leave a photo of them in your window with some black candles to invite them to the warmth of your home. You can also leave a vacant seat and table setting for them, or pour a glass as an offering to them.
The Next Day
After a night of feasting and festivities, Fillipinos observe Pangangaluluwa, what we know in the West as ‘All Souls’ or ‘All Saints’ Day4. Latin Americans observe this over 2 days, Nov 1st being dedicated to the souls of children, and Nov 2nd to their ancestors. If you choose to do so, this would be a great time to go to the cemetery with respect and reverence, to visit loved ones graves and leave offerings of flowers and fruit. Filipinos partake in a centuries-old tradition of lighting pieces of Pine wood called “saeng” by their loved ones’ tomb to cleanse or bless the space. This can also be performed with palo santo, sage, sweetgrass, mugwort or cedar. Whether you’re at the cemetery or at home, combine your favourites to make your own smudge stick, and offer a prayer or meditation on gratitude, embracing the inevitability of death, and celebrating the beauty of rebirth.
About the Author
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