The Witches' New Year
Samhain is a time for both honoring the dead and celebrating renewal.
In my home, we set up an altar for our ancestors, a custom we've borrowed from our Latino neighbors, who also honor the dead at this time of year onEl Dia de los Muertos
(The Day of the Dead), November 2. We put up old family pictures and mementos. We make an ancestor dinner, cooking our families' favorite ethnic foods, and spend an evening telling stories about our lost loved ones.
The next generation will know the picture of my Uncle Hi in his WWII uniform, who always said that he joined the Navy because it was a clean life, but he didn't know who cleaned it until he got in. My partner, David, might tell how his father was a champion swimmer, or I might sing one of my grandmother's songs.
Besides our intimate home celebrations, Reclaiming, the network of witches with which I work, puts on a huge public rite here in San Francisco called the Spiral Dance Ritual. Last year, for its 20th anniversary, we danced a spiral with 1,800 people. We build amazing altars; invoke the directions with stilt walkers, trapeze dancers, and fire jugglers; and raise a cone of power that sometimes seems to literally raise the roof.
In the heart of the ritual is a long, quiet meditation in which we read the names of those who have died in the past year. The death of someone we love is too hard to face alone. When someone dies, we need the comfort of community support. A public ritual to acknowledge the dead is a statement that grief is valued. Even though we believe the dead are not severed from us, we understand the pain and loss of their going.
Samhain is also a celebration of renewal. When we dance our spiral, we weave a vision of all that we want to create in the new year:
May the old ones and the young be loved,
And all the forms of love be blessed,
And all the colors of our skin be praised,
And all the cycles of life be saved.
May all who hunger now be fed,
May we heal the earth that grows our bread.
Many of the elements of our ancient festival have turned into secular folk customs. The candles, costumes, ghosts, and spooks are all dim memories of a time when people welcomed their beloved dead back to their homes and propitiated spirits with offerings.