Samhain and the Day of the Dead

It is that time of year where witches, vampires, goblins and ghouls adorn everyone’s yard. The time of year that everyone refers to as spooky. The time where children and adults dress up in costume and parade around the town asking for candies and goodies. Pumpkins are carved and put on porches, and Halloween festivals pop up everywhere, but what is this holiday all about?  Let us go over some of the history behind this day. 

Long before the traditions of today were alive, the holiday had a much different meaning. More than 2,000 years ago, the ancient Celts celebrated a holiday called Samhain (pronounced Sow-win) (History Channel, 2020).  This holiday was celebrated at the end of the harvest season and preceded the Celtic new year which is the 1st of November. The Celts believed that the veil between this world and the spirit world was at its thinnest during this time of the year, which meant that communication between the worlds was the easiest during this time.  

It is also believed during this time that the Druids would make large fires and sacrifices to ensure a good harvest for the coming year.  This fire was what they used to light their hearth fires that evening.  It was believed that this would help to protect them throughout the winter by keeping them safe and warm. The Celts placed a great deal of focus on honoring and ensuring that the spirits were jovial so that they would make it through the colder months and have a productive harvest the following year. 

Although Samhain is a Celtic tradition and practice, it is also important to mention Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.  The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated in Latin America, which combines Indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism (National Geographic, 2020). This celebration includes many different kinds of foods, beverages, parties, and dancing activities to honor those that have passed from our world into the next.  One of the most notable customs used during this festival are the use of sugar skulls, calacas and calaveras (skeletons and the skulls).  In many Hispanic areas, this holiday focuses on making sugar skull candies to put on the graves of relatives who have passed as a way of honoring them. This holiday focuses on death being a natural part of life. 

Over time, Halloween became the holiday of candy and costumes that many of us know it as today.  This is likely due to the belief from the Celts and the belief that spirits roamed the earth during this time.  This holiday became a fun time for children to dress up and have candy at the time of the last harvest.

Now that we’ve touched a bit on the history, we will now briefly discuss different practices of modern Pagan during this season of Samhain.  What do people in the Pagan community do at this time of year?  That depends on who you ask, each person has his or her own path.  Many modern Pagans celebrate this time as the dark half of the year and generally focus on those that have passed on, as the veil between the world of the living and the world of the spirits is at its thinnest during this time, thus making it easier to communicate with the spirits of our loved ones.  

Some Pagans host what is called a Dumb Supper. This is a practice that involves a grand meal to be prepared and a table is set, but with additional place settings. The additional place is set for those who have passed to come to join the celebration. This is done as a way to honor and pay tribute to those who have passed. Some other practices may include a bonfire honoring the end of the harvest  season and honoring those who passed.  This holiday generally marks the end of the harvest season, and so there are many Pagans who consider this holiday the end to their year (A Pagan or Witch’s New Year).  Many also choose to decorate an altar specifically during this time.  Anything revolving around autumnal themes or the Day of the Dead are suitable to place on the altar at this time.

Rituals and spells that are ideal to conduct during this time may involve one’s ancestors of those who have passed, communication with the dead, and to conclude things that preceded in the year.  Something else one may focus on at this time of the year is anything involving the release of old energy or new beginnings.  This is because now is the time that is considered to be the New Year by many Pagans.  As such, now is a good time to start anew with new ideas, goals, and ambitions.

As for me, I personally enjoy a mix of a bit of modern Halloween festivities with some traditional ones.  On the 31st of October, I wake up and ensure that my outside altar is dressed and ready for the festivities that will occur later in the day.  I also place a list of our deceased ancestors on the altar.  I start cooking a big meal because later in the day many of our friends and family will be joining us.  The children all dress up and do some traditional halloween games, such as: painting pumpkins and bobbing for apples. We generally also have a pinata since they are quite popular where I live.  We have a big feast and set a place for those who have passed, inviting them to join us.  After we have finished our meal, the children go off to play and the adults light a bonfire and sit around and spend time together.  After the fire is started and going well, when the moon is high in the sky, we hold a small ritual for those who want to participate by the large outside altar we have in the yard.  After which, we spend the rest of the evening in good company with friends and family. 

It is our belief that children are always welcome and don’t interrupt the circle so they are free to go come and go as they please throughout the ritual. Their energy is pure and what they learn at a young age will profoundly affect the rest of their lives.  We start by making sure we have everything that is needed for our very simple ritual. We have all the seasonal items on our altar and we try to have something to represent each of the elements, such as incense for air, fallen leaves or something from our harvest for earth, a bowl of water or river stones for water, and a candle for fire.  We also bring an offering for our ancestors, whether it is something they liked while they were living, something that is special to the family, or simply some food to offer them from our meal.  I also ensure that my list of those that have passed is on my altar so I do not forget anyone that needs to be remembered.  After I have ensured that all items are near the altar, everyone comes to gather around.  At this point we cast our circle, and while holding each other’s hands, we walk to circle together (the children generally enjoy this part). Some believe you have to walk the circle a certain way or a certain number of times. However, this is not our belief.  We simply believe that the intent needs to be there.  As we walk the circle we chant the following:

“We are a circle
Within a circle 
With no beginning
And never ending” 

After the circle is cast, the candle is lit, incense is lit, and words are spoken regarding the intent of the ritual.  In this case the following is recited:

 “This Samhain Eve, the veil between this world and the spirit world is thin, as I light this candle, I invite all of those who have passed before to enter and provide  guidance as they are able.” 

At this point we list each of the ancestors on our parchment, and also state that anyone we may have missed are, of course, still welcome to join us. We then continue speaking aloud: 

“The space within our hearts will forever be a welcome space to you and all others that come to offer aid. This is a time of year when the last harvest is completed and it is time to let go of the warm weather and embrace the colder time of year.  As we venture into this season, may we each let go of the thoughts and items that hold us back from growth.  May we each embrace the change of the season and ensure that the coming months hold us warm with physical togetherness and a warm daily hearth.  As the world grows cold may we each stay warm with the light of each other and the light of our ancestors.”  

It is at this point we then ask for everyone within the circle to share some of their experiences throughout the prior season if they wish to do so.  They may share things they have learned, things that need to be worked on, or things they need to let go.  Then we proceed with the closing of the ritual, reciting the following and presenting our gifts to our ancestors:   

We thank everyone that came to this circle to lend aid.  Please help us to stay warm and be our best selves in the coming months.  Ancestors these gifts are for you.  Please stay if you will, but go if you must.  This circle is open, but forever unbroken.” 

It is at this point that the ritual concludes, and we resume our conversations by the bonfire.  Please note that many parts of this ritual may be changed or altered to suit your own needs.  Likewise, although I personally conduct this ritual with a large group of people, it can also be done as a solitary practitioner.  

This concludes our basic introduction to Samhain and it’s roots. I hope you enjoyed reading it, as I enjoyed writing it!  Also, a friendly reminder that there is more information on this wonderful day, and much of it is readily available to you.  As such, I implore you to research and read what you can, as knowledge is power. 

Forever be blessed.

~ Sara Lynn


Dia de los Muertos, National Geographic, 2020, retrieved: October 18th,  2020.,Dia%20de%20los%20Muertos%20rituals

Halloween 2020, History Channel, 2020, retrieved: October 18th, 2020.