The History of Samhain
Samhain also marks when the veil between our world and the “other” world is thinnest (that of the dead, higher beings, metaphysical energies, fae, and more), allowing greater commingling and communication between us and “others.” This ancient holiday is behind many modern celebrations of Halloween and the traditions therein.
For example, the practice of carving turnips (gourds, pumpkins…), placing a candle inside, and setting it in the front window or just outside the home was a practice of “lighting the way” for wandering spirits on Samhain night. It is a message of both respect and, “Please move along if this is not your home,” since all energies, positive and negative, are wandering. Dressing up was a way of confusing ill-intending spirits so as to deter any negative energy, while knowing your true relatives who have passed on and familiar spirits will still know how to find you. “Trick or Treat” refers back to the prank-like acts and chaos that is said to rule the night– since such untethered commingling was said to be a risk that our world would slip out of order and back into the chaos from whence it came. This is just to name a few.
Samhain is by all means a time to eat, drink, and be merry, but it does have a special focus on honoring ancestors. Some may practice this by setting up an ancestral altar with photos of loved ones, their favorite food or drink as an offering, and candles to light their path to you. This practice, dating back some 2,000 years to the Celts, is also reminiscent of Dia de los Muertos, which dates back even further, 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Later, in the fourth century, one can see the ties to All Saints Day in Christianity. One, however, can practice honoring the dead or “other” in many ways, such as holding a “dumb supper.” There are many ways to host a dumb supper; here’s how my sister and I do it.
Rituals & Ways to Celebrate Samhain
We prepare a dinner, being sure to include the favorite dishes and drinks of our ancestors when possible. For example, we may make an entire spaghetti and meatball meal for my grandfather on my mother’s side, while a full miso soup and sushi platter for my grandmother on my father’s side. We will also prepare a dessert and, if we have time, an appetizer as well.
At the table, we place all the food on as many mirrors as we have– as it is said that mirrors are a direct reflection to the “other” side and makes the meal offerings more available (maybe even tangible…?) to them. While some practice the dumb supper by remaining silent for the duration of the meal or eating backwards (dessert first), my sister and I eat as usual. We make a point of discussing the previous 365 days– what we have gained, what we have lost, how we have changed, and sharing updates of other family members. We think of this as having a meal directly with our familial spirits, an opportunity to catch them up on everything from the previous year. We joke, laugh, reminisce, and pay tribute to the energies around us.
On this night which marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, it is important to remember a few key things. Darkness does not inherently mean bad or evil. Just like shadow work is a necessary part of self-work to reach a higher way of living, shadows and darkness are necessary to have the light. That said, in long-practiced traditions, the dark half does signify this start of possible struggle and strife– what stores of food you have will have to last you through the winter, because there will not be more to reap, for example. The cold, along with illnesses, could be deadly. The dark half of the year should not be feared or seen as a doom and gloom time, but it is important to remember what our ancestors went through in order for us to exist today.
We can pay tribute to that sacrifice by honoring them and acknowledging that we reap what they sowed. And just like them, we can take this time to stop harvesting and planting, and reap the rewards. (A side note: you do not need to know or want a relationship with your own ancestors in order to celebrate, you can point such honor at whoever you please– even if that is just the idea of community.) It is a time to rest. The dark half is a time to turn inward, work on oneself, and work on one’s home. Though we in modern day have the pleasure and leisure of running to the store for food, we can pay tribute at this time by acknowledging that those in the past could not.
Rest from, metaphorically, “outside” endeavors, and instead put that energy towards yourself and your space. This may look like slowing down on money-making projects and rekindling an old passion or hobby. It may look like cleansing and rearranging your living room to feel cozier. It could be as simple as changing your workout routine from one of strength building to one of joyful and mindful movement.
Build a bonfire, remember where you came from, honor your and your past community’s hard work, connect with positive energies, and celebrate Samhain in a way that speaks to your soul.
The Jack O Lantern & Stingy Jack
Centuries ago in Ireland, the “Stingy Jack” folklore was born. As with all myths and legends, certain details and parts of the story change depending on where you look, but here’s the most common rendition.
Jack was a man known throughout the land to be manipulative and deceitful, most often found drunk. His reputation was so long-lasting and widespread that even Satan himself heard of Jack and came to see for himself if he lived up to his reputation. Stumbling drunk through the countryside, Jack came across a body on a cobblestone path with a horrible grimace on its face. It became clear to Jack that not only was this Satan, but that he had come to collect Jack’s baleful and spiteful soul.
Jack’s final request before being taken to the underworld was for Jack to have one last ale, to which the devil complied. He treated Jack to several ales at a local pub and, at the end of the night, Jack asked the devil to settle the tab by turning himself into a silver coin. The devil complied, impressed by Jack’s unyielding wickedness. It was then that Jack stashed the coin in his pocket next to a crucifix, barring Satan from transforming back into the devil without having to bargain with Jack.
The two struck up a deal: that Jack would let Satan transform back if he would spare Jack’s soul for ten more years. The devil complied, and Jack spent another decade just as he had before: malicious, manipulative, and drunk.
Ten years to the day, Jack came across the devil on the same cobblestone path, and Jack seemed to accept that the devil would now be collecting his soul for the underworld. Jack again bartered with the devil, and asked if he might have one last apple to quench his starvation. Foolishly, the devil complied again, and climbed an apple tree to retrieve one. While Satan climbed the tree, Jack lined the trunk with crucifixes, again entrapping Satan.
When the devil demanded his release, he was forced again to bargain with Jack. This time, Jack demanded that his soul never be taken to the underworld. With no choice, Satan agreed, and was set free.
Eventually, after more years of living up to his reputation, Jack died. Prepared to cross the gates of St. Peter into Heaven, he was stopped. God told him that his lifestyle of sin and lies meant his soul could never enter Heaven. Jack then traveled to the Gates of Hell and begged Satan for admission. However, sticking true to their deal, the devil could not allow him to cross over. Jack effectively doomed himself to wander between worlds for all eternity, never able to rest, always in between light and dark, good and evil.
The devil gave him only a hollowed out turnip with a candle inside to light his never-ending way.
When the Irish migrated to North America, pumpkins were chosen over turnips and rutabagas as they were plentiful and native to the region. (Google “irish turnip carving” … they’re a lot scarier than pumpkins you see today). And thus continued the tradition of carving and lighting the pumpkins and placing them near the entrance of a home, transforming from a method of lighting Jack’s path (past one’s home), as well as lighting the path for all wandering spirits.