Samhain Rituals – How to Celebrate Samhain
Samhain is a time-honored tradition followed by witches, Wiccans, ancient druids, and countless other modern pagans across the world, celebrated as October turns to November. Samhain is a festival of the Dead, meaning “Summer’s End,” and though you’re probably tempted to pronounce it “sam-hane,” it’s actually pronounced saah-win or saah-ween.
What is a Samhain Celebration?
Tradition holds that Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest and the start of the coldest half of the year, and with this transition, it’s also celebrated as the beginning of the spiritual new year for practitioners, which is also why it’s nicknamed “The Witches’ New Year.”
How to Celebrate Samhain
Samhain is typically celebrated by preparing a dinner to celebrate the harvest. The holiday is meant to be shared with those who have passed on as well as those still with us. Set a place at the table for those in the spiritual plane, providing an offering for them upon every serving throughout the meal. In addition to those who have passed, invite friends and family to enjoy the feast with you. Typical beverages include mulled wine, cider, and mead, and are to be shared with the Dead throughout the meal.
Despite occurring at similar times and containing similar themes, Samhain and Halloween actually are not the same holiday. Halloween, short for All Hallow’s Eve, is celebrated on and around Oct. 31 and tends to be more family-focused. On the other hand, Samhain is more religious in focus, spiritually observed by practitioners.
There are some more light-hearted observances in honor of the dead through Samhain, but the underlying tone of Samhain is one of a serious religious practice rather than a light-hearted make-believe re-enactment. Today’s Pagan Samhain rites are benevolent, and although they are somber and centered on death, they do not involve human or animal sacrifices as some rumors may claim. Another difference between Samhain and Halloween is that most Samhain rituals are held in private rather than in public.
If you want to start honoring this pagan tradition, you might wonder when to start. Well, the timing of contemporary Samhain celebrations varies according to spiritual tradition and geography. Practitioners state to celebrate Samhain over the course of several days and nights, and these extended observances usually include a series of solo rites as well as ceremonies, feasts, and gatherings with family, friends, and spiritual community.
In the northern hemisphere, many Pagans celebrate Samhain from sundown on October 31 through November 1. Others hold Samhain celebrations on the nearest weekend or on the Full or New Moon closest to this time. Some Pagans observe Samhain a bit later, or near November 6, to coincide more closely with the astronomical midpoint between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. Most Pagans in the southern hemisphere time their Samhain observances to coincide with the middle of their Autumn in late April and early May, rather than at the traditional European time of the holiday. In the end, it’s really up to you!
Samhain isn’t necessarily a creepy, morbid holiday obsessed with death, as some may conclude. Instead, it reaches for themes deeper than that, tying in with Nature’s rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back by killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air.
This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the Dead and this facilitates contact and communication. For those who have lost loved ones in the past year, Samhain rituals can be an opportunity to bring closure to grieving and to further adjust to their being in the Otherworld by spiritually communing with them. However, it’s also a way to appreciate life, when you get right down to it.
There are many rituals you can partake in to celebrate Samhain. Here are just a few ideas (and none of them involve life sacrifice):
- Samhain Nature Walk
Take a meditative walk in a natural area near your home. Observe and contemplate the colors, aromas, sounds, and other sensations of the season. Experience yourself as part of the Circle of Life and reflect on death and rebirth as being an important part of Nature. If the location you visit permits, gather some natural objects and upon your return use them to adorn your home.
2. Set Up A Samhain Altar
If you’re new to the pagan tradition and don’t have a permanent altar in place, you can easily set up a table to leave in place for the three days prior to Samhain. Decorate the altar with symbols of late fall, such as:
• Skulls, skeletons, grave rubbings, ghosts
• Harvest food such as pumpkins, squash, root vegetables
• Nuts and berries, dark breads
• Dried leaves and acorns
• A cornucopia filled with an abundance of fruit and veggies
• Mulled cider, wine, or mead
- Samhain Ceremony
Start out by preparing a meal for the family, focusing on fruits and vegetables, and wild game meat if available. Include a loaf of a dark bread like rye or pumpernickel and a cup of apple cider or wine. Set the dinner table with candles and a fall centerpiece, and put all the food on the table at once. Consider the dinner table a sacred space.
Gather everyone around the table, and say this, “Tonight is the first of three nights, on which we celebrate Samhain. It is the end of the harvest, the last days of summer, and the cold nights wait on the other side for us. The bounty of our labor, the abundance of the harvest, the success of the hunt, all lies before us. We thank the earth for all it has given us this season, and yet we look forward to winter, a time of sacred darkness.”
Take the cup of cider or wine, and lead everyone outside. Make this a ceremonial and formal occasion. Head to your garden (if you don’t have one, find a grassy place in your yard). Each person in the family takes the cup in turn and sprinkles a little bit of cider onto the earth, saying, “Summer is gone, winter is coming. We have planted and we have watched the garden grow, we have weeded, and we have gathered the harvest. Now it is at its end.”
Collect any yard trimmings or dead plants and use them to make a straw man or woman. If you follow a more masculine path, he may be your King of Winter, and rule your home until spring returns. If you follow the Goddess in her many forms, make a female figure to represent the Goddess as hag or crone in winter. Once that is done, go back inside and bring your deity into your home. Place him on your table and prop him up with a plate of his own, and when you sit down to eat, serve him first.
Begin your meal with the breaking of the dark bread, and make sure you toss a few crumbs outside for the birds afterwards. Keep the King of Winter in a place of honor all season long — you can put him back outside in your garden on a pole to watch over next spring’s seedlings, and eventually burn him at your Beltane celebration. When you are finished with your meal, put the leftovers out in the garden as an offering for the dead.
- Make an Ancestors Altar
Honor your deceased family members with this ceremony. Gather photographs, heirlooms and other mementos of deceased family, friends, or even pets. Arrange them on a table, dresser, or other surfaces, along with several votive candles. Light the candles in their memory; while you do so, speak their names out loud and express well wishes and thank them for being part of your life or lineage. Sit quietly and pay attention to what you experience. Note any messages you receive in your journal. This Ancestors Altar can be created just for Samhain or kept year-round.
- Guide the Spirits
Place a white seven-day candle in the window to guide the dead to the Spirit World. Light the candle and speak these words, “O little flame that burns so bright, be a beacon on this night. Light the path for all the dead, that they may see now what’s ahead. And lead them to the Summerland and shine until Pan takes their hands. And with Your light, please bring them peace, that they may rest and sleep with ease.”
- Visit a Cemetery
Another way to honor the passing of family and friends is to visit and tend their gravesite at a cemetery. Call to mind memories and consider ways the loved one continues to live on within you. Place an offering there such as fresh flowers, dried herbs (rosemary is one great choice), or fresh water.
- Hit ‘Pause’
As we mentioned, Samhain is also a time to celebrate life in contrast to death, which makes it a great moment to stop and introspect. Reflect on you and your life over the past year. Review journals, planners, photographs, blogs, and other notations you have created during the past year. Consider how you have grown, accomplishments, challenges, adventures, travels, and learnings. Meditate. Journal about your year in review, your meditation, and your reflections.
- Hold a Séance
Also as we mentioned, Samhain is thought to be a time of little distance between the living and the dead. If there’s anyone on the other side you’d like to communicate with, now is an excellent time, according to the pagan tradition.
- Bonfire Magic
Kindle a bonfire outdoors when possible or kindle flames in a fireplace or a small cauldron. Write down an outmoded habit that you wish to end and cast it into the Samhain flames as you imagine release. Imagine yourself adopting a new, healthier way of being as you move around the fire clockwise.
- Divinatory Guidance
Using tarot, runes, scrying, or some other method of divination, seek and reflect on guidance for the year to come. Write a summary of your process and messages. Select something appropriate to act upon and do it.
- Divine Invocations
Honor and call upon the divine in one or more sacred forms associated with Samhain, such as the Crone Goddess and Horned God of Nature. Invite them to aid you in your remembrance of the dead and in your understanding of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If you have lost loved ones in the past year, ask these deities to comfort and support you.
- Herbs and Spices
There are many plants that tie in closely with Samhain. To name a few: allspice berries, broom, catnip, mountain ash berries, mugwort, mullein, oak leaves, acorns, rosemary, sage, pine cones, and straw. Find creative (and safe; research each before consuming) ways to use them in your cooking and around your house as decorations.
- Community Connections
Connect with others. Join in a group ritual in your area. Organize a Samhain potluck in your home. Research old and contemporary Samhain customs in books, periodicals, on-line, and through communications with others. Exchange ideas, information, and celebration experiences. Regardless of whether you practice solo or with others, as part of your festivities, reflect for a time on being part of the vast network of those celebrating Samhain around the world.
Interested in more? Check out our Halloween Collection!.
A smudging ceremony is the ritual of burning plant resins and herbs in a shell or a clay bowl while intentions and prayers are called forth. For centuries, Native American and Indigenous cultures have practiced smudging rituals to clear away negative energy, to invite in peace and harmony for individuals or environments. The smoke from the herbs and the plant resins are fanned using a feather or a hand and directed like a spiritual cleansing bath surrounding the person or the space.
The purpose of this cleansing ritual is to clear away anxieties, sadness, impurities, dark thoughts or unwanted energies that may have attached themselves to a space or an individual.
Smudging is most often performed before or as part of a ceremony to clear the environment and the people from certain thoughts or feelings that will not serve the highest good in themselves. For this reason, it is important to set a clear intention while smudging.
As the smudging ceremony is practiced, the smoke rises and so do the prayers to mother earth, father sky, to the sun and the moon, to the plants, the animals and the water. The burning of the sacred plants- sage, cedar, sweetgrass and palo santo- to name a few, support the connection to the sacred realms between the earth and spirit. Through this connect to spirit the smoke bath lifts negative feelings and energy and creates an opening for prayers and intentions to be heard, therefore bringing positive intention into practice.
What Plant Medicines are Used for Smudging?
Here are a few of the Plant Medicines used for Smudging and the symbolic meaning behind them:
Sage offers clarity, vision, strength and wisdom; it is known as a medicine for Women.
Sage is used traditionally in Native North American, First Nations and Indigenous cultures to represent the life force and maternal lineage of women. Sage can be gathered and bundled to dry in a stick or a smudge stick can be purchased already dried.
Cedar is used to heighten positive energy, to uplift feelings and evoke positive emotions.
Cedar holds the medicine to purify and return balance.
Cedar can also be used as a healing tea as it is very high in Vitamin C. It can be bundled, dried, and burned for purification and to heighten the connection to the spiritual realms.
Sweetgrass is on the of the four medicine plants used by all Native Americans/First Nations, the others being sage, cedar and tobacco. Sweetgrass is braided, dried and then burned as a cleansing ritual. As the smoke from smudging rises it is believed that our prayers too will rise up to the world of spirit to be seen, heard, and to be remembered. Sweetgrass symbolizes kindness- as this plant only bends when walked upon and never breaks – may we too remember that if injustices are done upon us may we hold kindness in our hearts and not react with hostility.
Sweetgrass is known as the hair of Mother Earth.
Tobacco is a sacred medicine plant to all North American Indigenous Cultures. Tobacco is believed to be a gateway or a bridge between the Earth and Spirit realms. Historically if tobacco is offered and accepted, then there is a sacred promise sealed. It acts like a commitment made by people and supported by the Spirit World.
Tobacco can be used as a way to thank Mother Earth or the Creator for the abundance and beauty we receive every day.
For example if you saw a beautiful sunrise or a rainbow and you want to give thanks you could leave some Tobacco upon the Earth for this gift of beauty. Tobacco doesn’t need to be smoked.
Palo Santo is a mystical tree that grows on the coast of South America and it means “Holy Wood” in Spanish.
Palo Santo looks like a small wooden stick and it’s scent is known to raise the vibration in preparation for meditation, creative endeavors and ceremony.
It’s known to bring a grounded and clear feeling when burned and is related to Frankincense, Myrrh and Copal. It is used the same way as Sage and is burned and fanned with a feather to clear the air and ask the spirits for permission to perform the ceremony.
Copal is a natural tree resin and comes from the Buresa tree family in Southern Mexico. Since ancient times, Copal incense has been considered sacred to the Mayan and Aztec people. Offerings were made to the deities and the gods atop the pyramids and the sacred burial grounds. Copal is considered a medicinal tree to the Mayas and is used to clear the body of diseases.
Using copal to smudge before meditation and ceremony can assist in strengthening peace of mind while removing energy blockages from the body.
Any of these plant medicines – along with any others that you feel called to burn – can be placed in a shell, a clay bowl or the open fire. Take the time to witness the smoke purifying and rising, allow the smell of the herbs and incense to bring you into a place of pure presence. As you call forth your prayers, visions, or intentions stay curious, open and full of heart as you engage in your smudging ceremony.
How to Smudge
Smudging can be done before any kind of ceremony, house cleansing, before yoga, meditation, in a group healing circle and in nature. Before beginning make sure you have these items in place. I suggest sitting in a quiet space for a few minutes to feel the earth below you, to soften into yourself, to take some full deep breaths, and to get clear on the intentions you are calling forth before your smudging session.
- You will need either a clay bowl or a large clam shell or abalone shell
- Herbs of your choice to burn (remove stems)
- Wooden Matches
- Large Feather or your hand is fine to wave smoke
- Open windows if you are inside
- Place the herbs or plant resin in the smudging vessel
- Light the herbs with a wooden match for 20 seconds are until it catches flame
- Wave the herbs with feather or hand so the flame goes out and the smoke swirls
- Smudge yourself first, waving the smoke over your face with eyes closed, over heart and limbs, over crown of the head and under the feet
- When you smudge others begins with the front body, then ask them to turn to do their back body, ask them to lift one foot then the other
- Have a clear intention to purify with your light and love anyone whom you are smudging. This is very important
- If you are smudging a home or a studio (wonderful for clearing away negative energy or when moving into a new space) ignite your herbs if they go out and begin the waving of smoke until every nook and cranny of the space has been smudged
- Once you are finished, take the ashes of the burned herbs and return it to the Earth
A Smudging Blessing for New Beginnings
Read over this a few times so you are familiar with the blessing and the body parts, then smudge yourself while speaking this prayer. Replace any words that you feel work better for you.
I cleanse my Eyes so they will see the Truth all around me, allow my eyes to see the beauty I receive from Mother Earth and the Love I create within my family and my communities.
I cleanse my Mouth for truthful speaking. In my speaking words may I elevate my community. May I speak prayers of healing to Mother Earth.
I cleanse my ears so that I may Listen fully to the wisdom passed down from my ancestors, the creator, the Earth and my Spirit Guides. May I be open to hear the good and allow any negativities to slide off me.
I cleanse my heart so that I may be filled with compassion and gratitude. May my heart be in truth and grow with purity, balance and joy.
May I walk in beauty
I cleanse my feet so they will guide us on this life’s journey as a light and truth seeker. May my feet stay grounded and remind me of how to walk in balance, love, joy and in harmony with my family, friends, earth, sky ,water, plant and animal worlds.”
May I walk in beauty.
Smudging is a very powerful practice and can work wonders in clearing away stagnant or unwanted energies in your home, in your heart or your mind. Being intentional, mindful, and calm as you are smudging creates a portal for you to go further into your spiritual work. The ritual of lighting a candle and then smudging yourself or your space allows you to gather presence, to let go of stress and to enter into your yoga practice, meditation, prayer or ceremony with intention. Let us rise up, clean our own energy fields and feed the greatness that lives inside us. Through this state of presence, may we also inspire our communities to live in their own greatness.