What is the History of Samhain?
Samhain is a pagan festival originating from Celtic spirituality. Known as a halfway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, it’s celebrated from October 31st to November 1st to welcome in the darker half of the year. Those who celebrate believe that the physical world and the spirit world are intimately connected, and Samhain brings the Otherworld the closest it’s been all year.
In Druidic traditions, priests would light a fire to a wooden wheel, igniting a large flame. The wheel, according to the Druids, represented the sun’s energy. Those around this fire would take the flame back on a candle stick to light their own hearths, bringing light into the darkness.
Storytelling around Samhain is another ancient tradition that continues today. A common Celtic tale told during Samhain includes “The Second Battle of Mag Tuired,” which portrays a battle between evil oppressors and the Celtic pantheon. Another tale, “The Adventures of Nera,” illustrates Nera entering the Otherworld while encountering corpses and faeries.
How Can I Celebrate Samhain?
Depending on your individual practice, there are a variety of ways to celebrate Samhain. The most common include the following:
Decorate Your Altar: Using the colors of the season is a wonderful way to brighten up your altar. Samhain colors include a combination deep purples, burgundy, dark oranges, and black. Many people choose to cover their altar with dark clothes and dark colored candles, welcoming in the night of the spirits. If you’re looking to connect deeper with the dead, consider adding skulls or ghost figures to your altar.
Carve Pumpkins: Carving pumpkins is a kid-friendly activity that’s fun for everyone. Gather a few pumpkins and carve some creative, funky designs. If you’re able to get smaller pumpkins or gourds, place a few on your altar. This is another simple way to evoke a mini Samhain celebration.
Create a Prayer Circle: Since Samhain is all about connecting with our ancestors and honoring the dead, picking out a few prayers lets those who have passed know that you’re keeping their memory alive. A simple prayer could be as follows:
With the gift of remembrance, I remember all of you. You are dead but never forgotten, and you live on within me, and within those who are yet to come.
Even if you’re unaware of which ancestors to connect with, it’s okay to be general in your prayers--it’s the thought that counts!
Bake Soul Cakes: If you’ve never heard of Soul Cakes, they’re a dessert used as a gift for spirits of departed loved ones. Pagans would bake these cakes and place them on their altars so their ancestors could access a yummy treat. But don’t worry, they’re not just for the dead! Those celebrating can also enjoy this delicious dessert. A great recipe for Soul Cakes can be found on this website. And if your spiritual tradition doesn’t include celebrating the dead, consider baking pumpkin bread, another common Samhain dessert.
What Herbs and Plants Are Associated With Samhain?
Like many holidays on the Wheel of the Year, certain herbs play an important role in each Sabbat. For Samhain, here are a few herbs that can add a little magic to your day:
Rosemary: During Samhain, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. Many pagans choose to use rosemary on their altar as a representation of their ancestors. Rosemary is also okay to use as an incense, so don’t hesitate to cleanse your altar with this gentle herb.
For a magickal use during Samhain, hang rosemary bundles in front of your front door to keep harmful spirits from entering. If you have someone in your home who’s sick during Samhain, mix rosemary leaves with juniper berries to promote a healthy healing process.
Chrysanthemums: Commonly used as a symbol of protection, chrysanthemums are also heavily associated with the spirit world. Traditionally, they’ve been used as a centerpiece for funeral floral arrangements or placed on new graves. Putting a bouquet of chrysanthemums in your home is a good way to remember those who’ve passed.
Mugwort: Mugwort is a magickal herb associated with treating depression. Samhain can be a hard holiday for those suffering from the darkness of mental illness. To help, make a set of smudge sticks with mugwort to use in your ritual to cleanse your aura. You can also place mugwort under your pillow to promote gentle, restful dreaming. (*Please note, mugwort does not cure depression. Please talk to your medical provider for proper treatment for mental illness).
Rowan Berries: In Scotland, rowan berries were used to ward evil spirits away from the home. During Samhain, hang these berry branches over your doors and windows to keep spirits at bay. Since Samhain has a lot of spirit activity, this will help keep your home full of good energy.
Final Thoughts on Samhain
When celebrating Samhain, remember to choose the rituals that resonate with your heart. While there are a number of ways to honor the dead, focus on whichever practice speaks to you.
Honoring our ancestors is an important practice. Whether it’s baking, creating our altar, or decorating the home, take time to recognize the earth’s “death”—and slow rebirth—on this special day!
Marissa has been drawn to the world of aromatics and plants since she was a child. Certified in aromatherapy, Reiki, and meditation, she actively changes lives using these healing practices. Additionally, she is a holistic life coach, and works towards helping others heal while simultaneously getting in touch with their spiritual side. As Herbstalk's Market Manager & Community Engagement Assistant, Marissa draws upon years of experience to oversee vendor relations, event management, and social media outreach. As a longtime attendee and member of the Herbstalk community, she is beyond thrilled to be a part of the team!