Samhain Traditions for the Pagan Family: 13+ from Dinners to Bonfires
Samhain is the ancient Celtic pagan festival of the dead celebrated in modern times on October 31st-November 1st in the Northern Hemisphere. And April 30th-May 1st in the Southern Hemisphere. Yes, Halloween is based on this sacred pagan holy-day when people believe the ancestors and spirits visit the physical realm with ease. If you’d like to incorporate family Samhain traditions into your celebrations this year, we have a few simple ones for you.
First, What is Samhain?
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) is an ancient Celtic festival of the dead. The term Samhain actually means “Summer’s End”, because the Celts only recognized two seasons: Summer and Winter. And just about the end of October/November they considered the last harvest. The women, who had been caring for the livestock and living high up in the hills for the summer, descend and rejoin the men for the harvesting of the last crops. Any crop or food left after Samhain was in the fairies’ domain and should be left alone.
Scholars believe it was celebrated by the Celts on Continental Europe at some point, but it’s customs were carried on longer in Ireland and the British Isles. Yet there are others who claim the ancient feast was celebrated thousands of years before the first Celts arrived on Irish and British shores. We may never have definitive answers, but one thing is for sure – the Church tried to wipe out the pagan holiday and never succeeded. Today it’s traditions are carried on throughout the world, just under a different guise – Hallowe’en, or All Hallows’ Eve.
Nearly every ancient culture has its own festival of the dead. This is a day or night or series of days in which people celebrate the memory of their ancestors. Those who have gone before us. And, with the nostalgic, warm traditions also come some kind of scary ones. Because when the portal from the spirit world is cracked open to the physical, wouldn’t it make sense that more than just our happy ancestors might step through? Potentially lost and even angry ghosts and faeries wander the earth on these nights. This is where traditions like the jack o’ lantern and dressing in costume actually originate.
The Jack O’ Lantern & Creepy Costume Traditions
The Jack O’ Lantern was brought to the New World by Scots-Irish immigrants. Grisly faces carved out of pumpkins were believed to scare off malevolent spirits and prevent them from entering one’s house on Halloween night. Hence putting them by the front door. But please note, Jack O’ Lanterns were originally carved out of turnips…and THAT was truly the stuff of nightmares. As for costumes, the tradition of guising dates back centuries. Possibly thousands of years.
Guising is the act of dressing in “disguise” and traveling from house to house in a parade or procession. Or going door to door begging for food or beverage in exchange for a skit or song. The disguises were typically bizarre and downright creepy and were also thought to either disguise the people inside OR scare off evil spirits. Guising wasn’t just done on Samhain, however. But a custom carried out at nearly every changing of the season.
The Morrigan & Samhain
A few of the Celtic deities are associated with this sacred holiday. One in particular is the Morrigan. She is the Great Phantom Queen, the Celtic goddess of war and death, which makes sense why Samhain is one of her sacred festivals. But did you know she’s also associated with Samhain because of her domain over fertility and life? The Morrigan is a complex goddess and embodies sacred polarity like most of European death goddesses. On Samhain, The Morrigan is in giantess form and straddles (or bathes in) the River Unshin. The Dagda (the Celtic All-father) sees her there and couples with her. Their union ensures the fertility of the land and its people the next year.
Holidays Similar To Samhain
If you live in North America, you’ve likely heard of Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. This is a holiday celebrated in Mexico to honor the peoples’ ancestors. Celebrations start November 1st and last through November 2nd. Other regions of Mexico may celebrate on different days or celebrate for longer periods of time. When we say celebrate, we mean they party! There are parades, beautiful bright altars for the dead, delicious food and funny nostalgic stories. And much more.
In Asia, the Hungry Ghosts Festival is a well-known festival of the dead. But this holiday falls sometime around August 12th annually. The holiday arises from Taoist and Buddhist beliefs the dead from the spiritual world visit the living on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Both elevated and angry spirits may visit the living. And so the focus of this festival is to provide offerings and prayers to ease the passage and suffering of lost and angry souls in particular.
There are literally dozens of ancestral holidays and festivals of the dead worldwide. And they all share similar qualities to the Celtic Samhain traditions. So when Hollywood portrays the Celts as being “evil” and “celebrating the dead”, you’ll understand that most ancient cultures did at one time or another. It’s just that modern society finds a taboo in death…unfortunately. As it is a part of life and we should come to understand and embrace it.
Samhain Magical Associations
Simple Family Samhain Traditions
Samhain can be an event for the whole family, whether your family calls it Halloween or not. Most Halloween traditions double as Samhain festivities and are family-friendly.
1. Carving Pumpkins
Carving pumpkins, a.k.a. jack o’ lanterns, is an old Celtic Samhain tradition except in Ireland they didn’t have pumpkins so they carved turnips. Turnips were made into creepy little faces and used to guard a home from malevolent spirits that walked the earth on Samhain night. Carry on this Samhain tradition by carving pumpkins with your family.
2. Bobbing for Apples
In addition to the typical Samhain tradition of carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples is affordable and appropriate for the whole family. All you need is a washbasin or cauldron, water, and apples and BAM! A fun Samhain tradition for the entire family. This particular custom dates back at least a couple centuries, but has its roots in ancient times. Our Celtic ancestors considered the apple an otherworldly, sacred fruit. One that granted prosperity, protection, love and the ability to commune with the Otherworld.
3. Samhain Traditional Bonfire
Having a bonfire is another customary Samhain tradition the whole family will enjoy. Fire is symbolic of the sun and is a great way to pay homage to the god for providing his light and warmth to us this year. Roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories, and since Samhain is the new year, throw your old troubles from this year (written on a piece of paper or wood) into the fire and watch them fade. Make your new years resolutions now, since Samhain was technically the new year in Celtic times.
4. Visit Ancestors’ Graves
Another simple Samhain tradition is to visit your ancestors’ graves. This is also customary in Mexico on the Day of the Dead to visit and celebrate one’s ancestors’ graves. Visit the cemetery during the day with the family to avoid any hooligans or problems in the cemetery on Halloween night. Decorate their graves with flowers and leave offerings out of respect.
5. Samhain Traditional Dinner Party
How about throwing a small celebratory Samhain party for your family? Or simply making a Samhain meal? A Samhain meal is anything that reminds us of Autumn and the harvest…breads, squashes, leafy green vegetables, corn, herbed chickens or meats, apple cider, candied apples, pumpkin pie, apple pie, soup, acorn squash, green beans, etc. Make it delicious and make it a Samhain meal worth remembering.
6. Dumb Supper
If you’re already making a large meal, try having a dumb supper. A dumb supper is where all members of the dinner party are silent throughout the meal. The meal becomes an actual ritual in which the ancestors are called to join the table and so it is critical to remain silent to allow the ancestors to manifest and/or speak to us in whatever way they can.
7. Resolutions / Goals
Since Samhain traditionally marks the Celtic New Year, now’s the time for pagans to make New Years Resolutions. Sure, you can wait until New Years Eve BUT your resolutions will be more powerful if set on Samhain night. The whole family can join in on this one, too.
8. Ancestor Altars
In addition to having a meal and inviting the ancestors, setting up ancestor altars is also a Samhain tradition for many pagans and witches. The ancestor altar should be separate from your regular altar. It could include photos of ancestors, items they liked, heirlooms, flowers, etc
9. Dressing in Costume for Samhain
Laurie Cabot (the official witch of Salem) says witches dress up on Samhain in costumes that reflect their intentions for the new year. What does this mean for your family? If your son wants to be a superhero, this brings more courage in the new year. When you dress up as Lady Luck, you’re bringing more luck into your life. Etc. Get creative with your costumes and have fun!
10. Samhain Ritual
If you can go outside, sit beside the fire or light a candle and do your normal ritual routine – ground, center, and cast your circle. Call the quarters and welcome the God and Goddess to your Samhain traditional ritual. Write your own ritual to honor the gods/goddesses and thank them for the harvest. Or borrow a ritual from a trusted pagan author, such as Scott Cunningham or Laurie Cabot. Give each family member a line/duty to perform during ritual.
11. Faery Offerings
In Ireland, it’s a well-known fact that not only do the ancestors visit on Samhain but the good folk do too (aka fairies). Traditionally, the people gave offerings of food and drink to the fae to keep them appeased and from causing mischief on Samhain Eve. In addition, it would keep the people’s livestock and preserved foods safe and healthy through the coming Winter.
12. Roast Pumpkin Seeds
If you plan to carve pumpkins for Samhain, consider saving the seeds and roasting them in the oven with salt and pepper. Add a little cayenne or chili powder to spice it up a bit. Pumpkin seeds bring prosperity and protection for the coming year. Plus it’s a really healthy snack.
13. Make Samhain Garland
Decorating for Samhain is one of my family’s favorite holiday things to do. Not only can you go spooky but you can also go old world and decorate with natural items. Make a Samhain garland using dried apple slices, cinnamon sticks, and popcorn. Learn how to craft it here.
14. Refresh Your Main Altar
Before Samhain comes, we enjoy cleansing, charging and redecorating our main altars. A focus on the Fall season or Samhain is paramount (but not required). Add sparkly lights, small gourds, pumpkins, bats, spider webs, and skulls. These decorations are easy to find during the Halloween season. The dollar store, Walmart, and most convenience stores will have Halloween decorations that work perfectly for Samhain. Get the kids involved, if you feel so inclined.
More Autumnal Fun:
- 20+ Samhain Herbs & Crystals to Use In Your Sabbat Rituals
- 50 Pagan Things to do in the Fall
- AUTUMN Gods and Goddesses of Prosperity, Rebirth, and More