Altars, Ancestors, Celtic Celebrations, Rituals and Ceremonies, Samhain

Honouring the Ancestors at Samhain

At sunset on October 31st, many of us in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate Samhain (SOW-en), the Celtic New Year and one of the most significant dates in the Celtic Wheel of the Year.

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For the Celts, the day began at sunset so the celebration continued through to sunset on November 1st. However, Samhain was not always celebrated on that specific day, now recognized by many as “traditional” Samhain. This Fire Festival is also a cross-quarter day, marking that precise point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, and this year it falls on November 6th at 18:15.

But if we look at the origins of Samhain, which means “Summers End” in Irish Gaelic, it was about celebrating the end of the harvest and the beginning of a new cycle in the year. The festival was not necessarily observed on a rigid or fixed date. As the last stalks of corn (or other crops) were brought in,  the celebrations began: bonfires, great food, apple bobbing and other festivities.

Whenever you celebrate Samhain, know that it is a sacred time, a time to honour our Wise Elders, Ancestors, and those who have transitioned in the past year. It is a time of reflection, clarity, divination, transformation, letting go… and starting anew: a new year, a new journey, and a new cycle of growth and renewal built on the lessons learned in the previous journey.

The Celts also recognized this as a liminal time, a time of transition between autumn and winter, when the veils between this world and the Otherworld were thinnest, when communication between those who reside there — the Sidhe (the Fae), the Ancestors — was more easily achieved.

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Image by Thalia Took

It is the time of An Cailleach (from the Gaelic for “veiled one”), the “hag of winter”.  The Cailleach is an ancient goddess, possibly known to the inhabitants of Ireland even before the Celts arrived. She is the Crone, keeper of winter and weather and wisdom, the mother of all gods and goddesses, living in the rocks and stones and mountains she created, many of which still bear her name. Click on the image to learn more about The Cailleach.

Who are the Ancestors?

When we speak of The Ancestors, we may think of our own lineage, such as our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and others back into our distant past. Many of us know our lineage and can honour those ancestors at Samhain, as well as loved ones who have passed in the last year.

One of the ways I often begin my Samhain (and other) rituals is by honouring my ancestors by reciting my lineage through my maternal line:

“I am the Daughter of Enid, who was the daughter of Lily, who was the daughter of Isabella, who was the daughter of Johanna Roach, who was the daughter of  Johanna Power, and we are the daughters of all the women who came before them.”

If you are not familiar with your family heritage for any reason (adoption, lost memories), you can still honour the ancestors at Samhain in many ways:

  • call out to your ancestors during any Ritual; they will be listening
  • honour the family who raised you; honour their heritage
  • meditate or take a shamanic journey to meet your blood ancestors
  • or, honour them in your ritual with a simple statement: “I honour all those who came before me. I ask for their wisdom and support in my new journey at this New Year.”

But we are connected to this physical world not only through our DNA, not only through our blood ancestors.

We are connected to the place in which we now live and to the places where we have lived. We are connected to the people who breathed the same air, harvested fruits and vegetables and herbs from the same land, who drank the same water. We are connected to the creatures who live here, to the rocks and trees and fresh waters.

We are connected to our spiritual ancestors, the men and women and gods and goddesses and creatures who inspired our path and to whom we call on for support.

Simple Ancestral Altars

Growing up in the Catholic Church, my image of an altar was something quite large and quite grand. . . and something distant from me, reserved for the priest. I didn’t have a personal connection to it. The church altar held the Tabernacle (and the Eucharist) and was the place from which the priest led the “sacrifice of the mass”.

But I quickly learned that an altar can be any physical space dedicated to our spiritual practice, and that I can have a personal connection to it. Many homes around the world have an ancestral altar, a place to remember and honour those who came before us. I have an altar for the seasons, another for the Goddess with whom I am working, often one for outdoors, and a small altar to creativity in my workspace.

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A recent ancestral altar with memories and symbols of my parents

 

You can create a simple altar for your ancestors for Samhain, or any time of the year, to both honour and remember them. Any space where you can sit and meditate quietly is perfect. Your altar could be on a shelf, a small table, on a flat stone, on a favourite shawl or cloth gifted by a relative now in spirit.  A space dedicated to the Ancestors brings their energy into your home.

Consider including some of these elements and practices:

  • Pictures or mementoes of loved ones who have passed
  • Pictures of your ancestral birthplaces
  • A scroll of parchment inscribed with some favourite memories
  • A candle for your ancestors or for those who recently passed
    • Optional: Personalize it by carving the initials of the recently departed into the candle, and light it in their honour
    • Tip: Let the candle extinguish naturally. Any colour may be used, but many people prefer black or white.
  • Mementoes of your spiritual heritage
  • An item to represent the land on which you live, and its heritage
  • Using a fireproof container (a smudge shell, a cauldron, a metal pot), burn white sage leaves to honour the departed, or a rosemary twig for remembrance.
  • Hold a “silent supper”, with a place and chair set for those who have transitioned in the last year or to represent all the ancestors. Mark a portion of the dinner time for silent contemplation, perhaps with a bell rung to signify the beginning and the end of that period (it can be as short as 10 minutes). Invite those present to share their memories and insights.
  • Take a journey with The Ancestors to examine the past year and receive messages and wisdom from your ancestral guides, to help you see through the darkness into light, and to use your inner strength and courage in the coming year. This is a perfect way to close your Samhain celebrations. Click here for my Ancestral journey ritual.

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Other ways to celebrate Samhain

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Rowan Cross image from Etsy
  • As a child, I always loved bobbing for apples. This is actually a very old tradition, perhaps as old as the days of the Roman Empire. And the apples can be used in divination!
  • Make a prosperity charm for the New Year, and for Halloween. I love these suggestions from Silver RavenWolf.
  • Create a Rowan Cross with twigs and berries from the Rowan Tree (aka Mountain Ash), tied with red thread for protection and to honour the Ancestors
  • Create a loose incense for your Samhain meditation, altar or bonfire, or for smudging the home.
  • Carve a pumpkin or turnip, to light the spirits’ way back home to the Otherworld
  • Divination has always been a popular activity at Samhain, with the veils to the Otherworld so thin. Do a reading with your favourite Tarot or Oracle cards.
  • Do a Release Ritual, letting go of ghosts or burdens from the past to create room for new growth and goals in the New Year.
  • Plant a seed for new intentions in this Celtic New Year:
    • At your altar, write your intentions for the new year on a small piece of paper.
    • Hold the paper to your heart chakra and breathe deeply while mentally reciting your intentions, to bring their essence and truths deep within.
    • Imagine those intentions manifesting fully and tap into how it feels in your body, mind and spirit to live from those intentions.
    • Ignite the paper with your altar candle and drop it onto a fire-proof vessel (such as a small cauldron or shell) and watch it be consumed by fire, sending its energy up to Spirit.
      • Optional: Collect the ashes and, when fully cooled and thoroughly extinguished, blow them into the night OR collect the ashes, leftover herbs and botanicals – and even the candle wax – from this ritual, for saving and adding to a bundle (an ancestral bundle, a new year bundle…) which you can give back to Mama Earth.

 

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Apple Bobbing

 

 

Samhain Blessings

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