2016-06-30

Editors' Note: This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2002.

Each year, like many of my neighbors here in rural Wisconsin, I set pumpkins on my front doorstep, and take part in small town Halloween events. But for me and thousands of other Wiccans and Pagans, it is Samhain, not Halloween, that is the focus of our celebrations at this time of year. Most people don't know about Samhain, yet it is one of our most important religious holidays, a festival honoring the dead. For many Wiccans and Pagans, it also is our spiritual new year.

I look forward to Samhain with enjoyment and anticipation. My preparations and celebrations extend over a period of several weeks. It does not bother me that while most of the rest of America is celebrating Halloween, I am celebrating Samhain. I do get concerned, however, when anti-Pagan bigotry and discrimination emerges, especially at this sacred time of year.

Beginning in early October, I typically start getting interview requests from reporters and other media who want a Wiccan angle for a Halloween related piece or show. Although most of my Samhain activities are away from public view, I usually consent to do interviews and public appearances when asked. I do this with the hope that I can help increase public understanding about the benevolent nature of contemporary Paganism and Samhain. I do this with the hope that I can help dispel misconceptions that underlie prejudice.

I begin my personal Samhain preparations in mid-October, taking meditative walks in the hardwood forest surrounding my home. As I walk, I notice areas where the vegetation has already died back, and I reflect on nature's cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Drawing my woolen purple cloak around me, I watch trees shed their leaves with each gust of chill autumn wind. I gather some of the fallen leaves, plus acorns and dried mullein stalks, carrying them into my home to use as decorations and reminders of the season. I also gather in the last of the harvest from my herb gardens. I bid farewell to the growing season as I mulch around perennials, and I pray that my plants will survive the winter cold to sprout new growth again in spring.

I also observe Samhain with a series of meditations in which I assess my life and think about what I would like to change. I make resolutions. I pray to the Divine for guidance and support in the coming year. I consult the Tarot, Runes, and other oracles as part of my spiritual reflection and planning.


Each Samhain, in the center of the altar, I place the symbols of those who have died in the past year.

In this last week of October, I select photographs, heirlooms, and other mementos of dead family members, friends, and ancestors. I arrange these remembrances atop a chest I inherited from grandparents and add votive candles to create a Samhain altar. Each Samhain, in the center of the altar, I place the symbols of those who have died in the past year. This year I am honoring my cousin Isabelle, my companion cat Isis, my neighbor Laura, my friend Pat, my priestess colleagues Pauline and Kay, and others. As I kindle candles on this altar, I call to mind memories of them, and express my appreciation to these deceased loved ones for being part of my life. Then, I honor them as being part of the ancestral realm and invite their spirits to join in my Samhain celebrations.

At nightfall on October 31 we celebrate the Feast of the Dead in my household. I set a place at the kitchen table and invite our deceased loved ones and ancestors to be with us there in spirit. I take a bit of each food and drink that is part of the feast and add them to what is known as the "Spirit plate and cup" that form the place setting. Then, I kindle a candle to represent the presence of the beloved dead at the table. This form of the Feast of the Dead has its roots in the folkways of Pagan Europe, and this has been part of my Pagan spiritual practice for more than thirty years. Although simple in form, it has a powerful effect on me, since it not only is a means of spiritually connecting with the spirits of the beloved dead, but perpetuating the folkways of my ancient ancestors.

Later in the evening, and on several subsequent nights, I review family history materials and think about the many strands of my multi-cultural heritage from America, Native America, and Europe. Then, in meditation, I call to specific ancestors as well as my ancestors as a whole to share with me understandings about them and their cultures and eras. I also invite them to share guidance for me and my life. I reflect on and note insights and other messages that come to me in these Samhain rituals, musings, and dreams.

In addition to my own personal practices, I celebrate Samhain with other Pagans. We exchange cards, emails, and phone calls, plus celebrate with rituals and feasts. Last week, my Full Moon coven celebrated with an ancestor ritual, and earlier this week, with a bonfire and feast, I celebrated with students I've been teaching about Wiccan practice.

And this Friday afternoon, during my Wiccan community's celebration, I'll lead a croning ritual that celebrates the menopause passage of one of our members. In the evening, we'll have a Samhain costume party and dancing to traditional Celtic music. The next day, we'll have Circle Sanctuary's annual meeting and birthday celebration. In the afternoon, we will make banners to honor our ancestors, and at dusk, to start our main ritual, we'll kindle a bonfire and will cast into it herbs and twigs of purification. We will then process indoors, where we will call to the Divine as Goddess and God and ask Their blessings on our Community during our festival and the coming year. Our indoor temple room will include a huge altar with hundreds of candles and photos of dead friends and relatives, plus a smaller altar with a spirit plate and cup with samplings of the great potluck Samhain feast that will follow our ritual. Then, on Sunday morning, we will have a memorial service and a cemetery blessing, leaving at the cemetery the plate and cup, as well as baskets of fruit, nuts, vegetables, and herbs given in honor of the Dead.

During the day following our Community Samhain Festival, I will spend time alone reflecting on my Samhain experiences. I plan to take a walk in the forest as I call to mind what I have cleansed away as well as reflect on guidance for the new year. I will savor the sense of spiritual renewal that my series of Samhain celebrations has brought, and I will look ahead to the future with hope and optimism.

Whether you celebrate Samhain or not at this time of year, I invite you to join with me in this Samhain wish and prayer for the new year -- that humankind will progress in appreciating and respecting diversity across religions and cultures, and that humans will not only be in better relation with each other, but in greater harmony with the greater Circle of Nature of which we all are part. So be it.