The veil is getting thinner, they say, as we approach the height of autumn. Samhain (SAH-when) is the Irish name for the festival that marks the end of the traditional Celtic calendar year, October 31st. Known as Día de los Muertos in Mexican culture, the Day of the Dead is celebrated in many places around the world as a time to honor the ancestors. Chinese medicine teaches that autumn is the season of processing grief-- a process that, if ignored, can lead to unsupportive emotions as the year progresses, such as fear and hatred. Even the trees demonstrate to us that this is the time to let go of the products of the past year, and make space for the new life of the year to come.*
Samhain can be understood in two different ways; as the third and final harvest festival, or as the funeral of the grain god. In the Celtic agricultural calendar, early August is the first of three harvest festivals in which the grain god's body is cut down and eaten as beer and bread, so that the people may live. Echoes of that festival can be seen in the Eucharist of Christian philosophy. The second harvest festival is the Autumnal Equinox, late September, when the community expresses gratitude for the incredible bounty that will see them through the lean winter months. The last harvest, Samhain, is the time when symbolically the grain god's soul is allowed to pass into the Otherworld, and the goddess in her form as the wise old crone holds back the veil between worlds to allow him to pass through. Because of this moment of passing, Samhain gives us a chance to peek through the curtain and say thank you to all of those human souls that are waiting for us on the other side.
Both gratitude and release are important parts of this holiday. Here is a simple ritual you can do by yourself or with your family to get in touch with the deeper meaning of All Hallow's Eve:
1. Gather some photos of loved ones who have passed away, particularly those who passed away this year. Create a little altar space in your kitchen or dining room where you can lovingly arrange their photos and/or a few personal items of theirs to represent their presence in your heart and home.
2. Leave some offerings to these loved ones. This might be something more ceremonial, such as incense, candles, or flowers, or it could be more personal, like their favorite type of alcohol, candy or dessert. What would your loved ones have wanted to partake of if they were there celebrating with you at a party? Place these foods or items by their photos.
3. Take a moment to sit by this altar and share, either out loud or in writing, the things that you were grateful for during their time on Earth. Share stories and songs, allow yourself to laugh and cry. Imagine what they might say to you if they were standing there with you.
4. When this sharing feels complete, write down on a piece of paper a few things that you are ready to let go of. What things should stay behind with the dying year and not follow you forward into the future? Once you have this written down, burn the paper(s) in a fire-safe container (cast iron cauldrons are good for this!) or choose another method to destroy the paper completely. Ask your ancestors and loved ones to help break up that old energy so it can be recycled into something more productive in your life!
5. Eat a good meal to nourish and ground yourself after all that release. Perhaps you could prepare a family recipe that represents comfort and love to you. When you go to bed that night, leave out a plate of food or drink for your ancestors to enjoy as they party all night. In the morning, you may eat the plate of food or bury it in your backyard to return it to the earth. Say thank you to your ancestors, and lovingly take down the altar when you are ready. Until next year!
If you would like to learn more about creating ritual for yourself or others, join us on October 27th at Roots & River Yoga in Brunswick, MD to learn more techniques and tools! Sign up on the events tab of our website.
*Shout out to our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, who celebrate Samhain on April 31st, the height of their autumn!