My altar is dressed with colors of the season. Ornaments of gourds, garlands of leaves, and votive candles decorate what is on most days, an ordinary antique table sitting in the middle of my living room.
I am ready for Halloween, traditionally known as Samhain (Sow-in). The roots of this holiday come from the same place as my ancestral roots, Ireland.
October 31st through November 1st marks the end of the harvest season. Residents in ancient Ireland worked closely with the land following the cycles of the earth.
They would let their hearth fires burn out while they were away collecting the bounty from the fields. Upon their return, festivities celebrating the harvest season would commence including the lighting of bonfires and the re-lighting of their hearth fires. It is one ritual that has become an integral symbol of Samhain.
As we see in other traditions such as Dia de los Muertos, the night of October 31st is thought to be a night when the veil of the spirit world and this one are at their thinnest. It is a night when our ancestors may pass back through the veil and spend one 24 hour period with us again. It is a night to honor them.
One way to express our gratitude is with a meal and a pagan dumb supper is an ideal Samhain tradition honoring the dead. The title of this dinner may sound a little daunting but all it is referring to is the fact that the meal is eaten in silence, (referring to the word ‘dumb’). No one speaks.
A place is set at the table for each guest, including a setting for the spirit guests. Sometimes a shroud of black or white is placed over the chair in front of the spirit setting, acknowledging their presence at the dinner table. Typically a candle is placed at the head of the spirit plate to welcome them to sit for a while.
Where and how the dumb supper originated seems to be a point of contention among some historical circles. Some feel it reaches far back into ancestral times while others may feel it is a more modern ritual. Either way, it has become a tradition for me, in my home.
I set out photos of my grandmother and great-grandparents. Yes, the relations who came here from Ireland. Sometimes, I retell their stories, helping keep their memories alive.
The supper itself may take on a formal dining experience or can be kept quite simple. I generally prefer the latter, preparing favorite dishes from my family.
Mine is a vegetarian form of meatloaf using primarily lentils instead of meat. We just call it lentil loaf. I serve this because it was my grandmother’s favorite and I cherish the idea of having dinner with her again. I add mash potatoes or Colcannon, an Irish recipe of potato and cabbage, as a side dish.
Traditional Irish Colcannon
Try your luck with this tasty side dish, traditionally served on Halloween.
A glass of wine is placed at the top of each plate. For our dinner, we chose a deep red, Malbec. We set out water in a jug similar to the water pitchers placed on ofrendas during Dia de los Muertos.
At the end of our meal, we each pulled a tarot card to receive a blessing or answer to a specific question, directly from our ancestors.
5 Rituals to honor the season
Here are five simple ways to acknowledge as well as enjoy this Samhain season.
- A nature walk.
An early morning or evening walk will allow you to observe your surroundings, the many colors, aromas, and sounds of the season. As the leaves turn different shades of red and orange around you, use this time to reflect on cycles of death and re-birth. Walking can clear our minds. This may be a good time to focus on what you wish to let go of in your life and what you would like to gain. During the time of Samhain, many pagans focus on what seed of inspiration do they wish to foster, knowing that with the coming Winter Solstice this seed will be nurtured and grow.
- Setting up an altar.
An altar can be any designated space set aside in your home. It’s purpose is to help you focus your thoughts and intentions during the few days leading up to and even after Samhain.
As I mentioned before, I turn a small table in my living room into my altar. it already holds photos of my relatives,so for Samhain I just dress it up a bit more.
Here are some decorations to consider:
Harvest foods such as pumpkins, squash, or root vegetables. These do not have to be large. There are many aesthetically pleasing gourds in all sizes and shapes.
Nuts, berries, dark breads or a favorite food of a relative who has passed. I have known some people to put the favorite bone or toy of a beloved pet on their altar.
Dried leaves and acorns add color and flair.
Mulled cider, mead, or wine on the evening of Samhain is a lovely addition.
Skeleton or skulls such as used during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
- An homage to the ancestors.
Honor your loved ones who have passed, including pets, by placing photos of them upon your altar. Add some votive candles, speaking their names as you light each candle. A personal item belonging to a loved one is a sweet gesture to place upon your altar.
- Bonfire magic.
This period of time is a wonderful moment to reflect on the past year. Maybe read through old journals, letters, or blogs and take stock of your personal growth.
Setting up an outdoor bonfire, when possible and safe, or a fire in your hearth is a lovely way to celebrate Samhain. specially since the nights are becoming longer and chillier. Write down an old habit you wish to end and cast it into the flames as you visualize its release. Then, imagine yourself adopting a new and healthier way to live. If you can move around your bonfire, keep this new image in your minds eye as you go around clockwise, cementing in your intention.
Samhain honors our ancestral connections so why not reach out to others in your area and connect with them this holiday. This year, staying connected to each other seems to take on more importance as we balance the need to social distance with our basic human need of community. New forms of social connection have come forth during this time like Zoom gatherings or socially distanced walks. Even a simple text or old fashioned phone call keeps that union strong.
Samhain is over, or is it?
The day itself comes and goes, waxes and wanes. The trick or treaters have all gone home but the spirit of this holiday does not end here. In fact for pagans, this is a beginning. It is the turn of the wheel of the year.
For me, this time from Samhain to Solstice becomes a period of reflection. A time for me to reassess all that is truly important in my life.
I spend time journaling, daydreaming, and thinking about what it is I wish to add to my life. what I desire more of in my days and how I may nurture that in the days to come, leading up to Winter Solstice.
Maybe it is more writing time because then I will be able to finish my book. Maybe it is more travel, even if that means staying local for now. Maybe it is carving out activities with my kids, for they too are getting older with busy lives taking them in new directions.
As solstice approaches, I suggest we take these cozy nights and nurture ourselves as well as our own inner desires. Thank our ancestors and keep the fires burning.
MaryRose is a writer/speaker/advocate living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest between mountains and water; she is a traveler, massage therapist, a vegetarian foodie, and mom to two amazing grown kids. She is active in a local PFLAG chapter and works for social justice with the LGBTQ+ community.
Contact her at MaryRoseDentonWriter, @maryrosedentonauthor on FaceBook, or on Twitter.
She believes in Meraki, which is what happens when you leave a piece of yourself, your soul, creativity, or love, in your work. When you love doing something, anything, so much that you put something of yourself into it.