Got your house decorated yet? Samhain (the Fall Equitherm) is only a few weeks away! For many of us (including me), this is one of the most sacred times of the year – a time when I feel my Ancestors even more closely than usual.
Among Neo-Pagans, the Cross-Quarter is commonly celebrated on October 31 as Samhain. It is the part of the origin of modern Halloween. The actual date of the cross-quarter falls about a week later on November 6 or 7. The precise date and time for the cross-quarter for the year can be found at archaeoastronomy.com. Meanwhile, those in the Southern Hemisphere experience this time as the Spring Equitherm or Cross-Quarter.
In Neo-Pagan circles, the date is sometimes celebrated as the beginning of winter, although, in the U.S., winter does not officially begin until the Winter Solstice, and the cross-quarter is the middle of autumn. In some places in the northern hemisphere, the last leaves are clinging to the branches and the harvest is near completion.
While over commercialization is a concern for any sacred time, items are often an important part of our practices, and help make our holidays more real. This is especially true for kids, whom don’t connect to abstract ideas as easily as things they can touch and see. So this year, I was glad to see this saber-toothed cat Samhain become available. Saber toothed cats were real horrors to our Ancestors – some of our Ancestors ended up in the stomachs of these living monsters. What a good way to help our kids (and ourselves!) see, and feel, the very nightmares that many of our Ancestors undoubtedly had in the dead of night!
With the revival of Paganism, the practice of venerating ancestors, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.
Samhain is hugely associate with the dark, with death, and with mystery, and for those reasons it’s a perfect time to think about what, if anything, lies beyond death, and to remember those who have passed away before us. I don’t personally believe in a literal afterlife, but I believe very strongly that my ancestors are kept alive within my, through my DNA, my memories, and all other forms of inheritance. My acknowledgement of the ancestors generally takes a very loose form, and I don’t just acknowledge recent blood relatives – for me it goes all the way back to the big bang!
We spend a lot of time indoors and in our own company in the Winter, and this may be why it feels so important to release excess baggage at this time. We may want to release patterns, people, habits, emotions. The introspection that has been mounting since Lughnasadh culminates in this sudden darkness – the clocks turn back and suddenly it’s dark on my way home from work. It feels sometimes like I won’t make it through the dark winter if I don’t let go of those things that weigh me down. It is a natural time to honour the dark mother, the dark god, and the wild hunt. Our thoughts turn from life and birth to death and darkness. In the dark, we feel our fear a little more, we become less easy in ourselves. And we remember that life is not all about the light and creativity of summer.
Glenys Livingstone of PaGaian Cosmology celebrates the Autumn Cross-Quarter by having her ritual participants bring photos of their old selves, and answer the question: “Who have you been?” The participant holds up the photo and describes the old self, to which the group responds: “Hail to you and your becomings.” The participants also remember those who have passed on, sharing a feast of lolly snakes while observing:“We welcome all these, whose lives have been harvested, whose lives have fed our own, and we remember that we too will be consumed, feed others with our lives. May we be interesting food. We also become the ancestors. We are the ancestors.”
Jon Cleland Host of the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group relates Samhain to events in evolutionary history: “Just as Samhain heralds the dark quarter of the year (Samhain to Imbolc) and then the cold quarter of the year (Yule to Ostara), the Cretaceous extinction started with the dark cloud of ejecta from the asteroid impact, followed by the deadly freeze of a “nuclear” winter. Samhain also works well to commemorate extinction, which has been the fate of over 99.99% of all species that have existed on earth.” Host then develops these observations into a seasonal practice:
These extinctions have made room for new species (such as us), and death makes room for new life. Samhain is thus the time to express our gratitude to those who have gone before us, those who have made our lives possible, those who have influenced us, and those who we remember. For this reason our ritual usually includes tributes to our ancestors and others. Photos of the dead can be given a place of prominence leading up to Samhain, and all can be especially remembered, even spoken to, if you like. The meditation to our ancestors can be read (see separate upload [in Naturalistic Paganism files section] for that).
It is this process of remembrance, reflection, gratitude, and promise that shapes this holiday for our family. First, several weeks prior to Samhain, we change our dinner grace from our usual set of graces to the Samhain Grace. For the Samhain Grace, we name, thank, and appreciate a specific Ancestor before dinner. We start in early October with the beginning of the Universe with the Big Bang (or Great Radiance), the formation of Stars, Galaxies and elements, proceeding through animal evolution, to recent Ancestors and loved ones. We have cards which we’ve made for each Ancestor, and these are attached to the wall, in order, as they are thanked – so that when Samhain arrives, all of them are up and in order. You can download, print, and use these cards for your family if you like. The Ancestor cards can be found at http://naturalpagan.org/kidspirit/index.html. With nearly 30 cards in this set, you’ll need to begin this family practice very soon to finish on Samhain. As Naturalistic Pagans, we don’t need to worry about a literalistic deity punishing us, so it’s OK to do a couple cards on one day if family circumstances put you a day behind. There is also a link to creating a Cosmala – a set of beads that represent the history of the universe from the Big Bang forward. We hold our Samhain ritual after trick or treating. Other family Samhain traditions are here.
It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have spent much of the past month researching my family history in order to create a family tree and know more about the ancestors I wish to honour. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. This year that will include both my grandmother and her dog. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods.
Bart Everson observes this time of the year by celebrating an Ancestor’s Night, preparing dishes that a departed grandparent was particularly known to enjoy and discuss memories with his family over the meal. He also uses FindAGrave.com to identify requests from people doing genealogical research, who can’t make it to his city but want a photograph of an inscription. If they are successful, they are able to help a stranger honor their ancestors. Bart writes,”When surrounded by the dead I always reflect upon the fact that all humans are related, however distantly. We are all one family, regardless of how violently we attempt to separate ourselves through class and race and lineage. Thus, every cemetery is full of my relatives, and yours too. If only we could remember this crucial fact, the world would be a better place.”
As part of his observance of the ADF Solitary Druid Fellowship ritual on this day, NaturalPantheist recites the following:
“As I stand here on this celebration of Samhain, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my ancestors did in times before and my descendants may do in times to come, I honour the old ways. The harvest is in from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock has been brought down from the pastures and the people return to their homes for feasting. The leaves have changed colour and are falling from the trees. All is at an end. Summer is gone, winter is coming, the frosts and cold nights wait on the other side. It is the time of rest, of contemplation, of death. It is the time of liminality and transition as tonight the veil between worlds is thinnest. It is the night of the ancestors, a time to remember, honour and feast to those who have died, our loved ones and all life throughout vast history. They are not gone but live on within me and I will remember them. Just as they have become one with the earth again, so too will I someday. I thank the earth mother for all she has given me this season and for the abundance of the harvest. I celebrate the new year and look forward to winter, a time of sacred darkness, a time to meditate on the cycle of death and rebirth.”
Samhain rituals can vary a lot. A naturalistic Samhain ritual can be seen here, and many more can be found with a youtube search.
For those on the Southern side of our Earth, preparations for Beltane/The Vernal Equitherm are likely underway…….
This is an updated version of the yearly Fall Equitherm practices post.