The Pagan holiday of Samhain falls on the night of October 31, overlapping similar holidays such as Halloween and the neighboring Dia de los Muertos on November 2. Samhain is the third of three harvest festivals, when the last fruits and vegetables are brought in. Traditionally, animals were also brought in from the pastures to the barns, and those kept for meat were butchered.
Plan ahead for Samhain by exploring themes and activities. This will help you design a cohesive and effective ritual. Good books include Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samhain to Ostara, The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of the Year, and Halloween: Customs, Recipes & Spells. Guided meditations are also available, like Shamanic Journey Volume 1 : Samhain and Guided Rituals for the Turning of the Seasonal Wheel Volume 1: Samhain and Yule.
Death and Transformation
In late autumn, the leaves and flowers die. Many animals migrate or hibernate. The world goes dormant. These natural cycles remind us that everything dies, and yet will be reborn. So Samhain is a holiday about death and transformation. Associated deities include Kali, Hades, and Baron Samedi.
Decorate your altar with macabre symbols such as skulls, skeletons, and scythes. The colors black, white, and violet represent death and the transcendent spiritual realms. Attendees may also dress up as ghosts or skeletal figures. The feast usually features bread or candies that look like skulls and other symbols of death.
Spirits and Ancestors
At this time of year, the Veil between this world and the next grows thin. Discorporeal spirits find it easier to interact with the material world. The dead have an easier time contacting the living — and vice versa. This is a good time for ancestor work and genealogical studies.
Consider choosing a historic period and matching your decorations to a Victorian, colonial, or Renaissance theme. You might use the colors of old images: black, ivory, gray, sepia. People could dress as one of their own ancestors or an admired historical figure.
Divination and Mysteries
Because the Veil is thin at this time of year, divination works better. Many examples of divination appear in traditional Samhain or Halloween activities, such as throwing an apple peel to find the initial of your future spouse. This is also a time for studying other esoteric techniques.
For a Samhain celebration focusing on divination and mysteries, decorate with veils and curtains of lace. For a creepier touch, use cobweb floss. Bring out the crystal balls. Now is a good time to use that Tarot deck with the missing card — tack or tape the remaining ones all over the walls or use them in games. Choose colors such as black, silver, gold, and purple.
The Red Harvest
Historically, livestock would graze outside during the warm season, then spend the cold season in the barn. Farmers could not afford to feed large flocks or herds, however, so many animals were butchered for meat at this time. Samhain also marks the beginning of the hunting season. The last crops had to be harvested, because frosts would soon ruin anything left in the fields. So this is the end of the harvest season, and it honors the sacrifice through which life feeds on death to survive.
Decorate your altar with images of domestic or wild animals used for food. Skulls, hooves, horns, and hides are also appropriate, along with the tools of herders and hunters. The color red prevails but may be accented with black, white, or brown. Participants may dress as animals, or as hunter and prey to enact a symbolic hunt. The feast usually features meat and the last fresh fruits and vegetables of the season.
The Trickster’s Night
Samhain, like Halloween, is a time when many ordinary rules are suspended. Young people play pranks and rowdy games. They may go door-to-door begging for food, liquor, candy, money, or other treats. People dress in costumes to disguise themselves while committing mischief, but also to ward off malicious spirits. This is a time for honor tricksters such as Loki, Eris, Pan, and Coyote.
Decorate your altar with whimsical items and silly masks. Don’t forget to prime the chairs with a few whoopie cushions. Use bold colors such as black with orange, purple, red, or green. Motley or particolor costumes are especially appropriate, being associated with tricksters in many cultures.
Bonfires for Protection
Traditionally, livestock would be driven between two huge balefires and then enclosed in the barn for winter. This protected them from illness and evil spirits. Bonfires remain a popular part of Samhain celebrations. Other protective activities include wearing masks and making noise to drive out malicious influences.
Decorate with fire imagery and protective symbols if you want an altar, but many people dispense with it and simply worship around the bonfire itself. Items may be tossed into the fire and burned as a way of releasing the past. A burning branch may be pulled from the fire and used to light candles as a way of pesonalizing the purification and protection. Dress in snug clothes; avoid trailing sleeves or anything else that might catch fire.
This article originally appeared in Gaiatribe on October 21, 2009.