• 10/08/2023

Samhain Rituals: The Roots of Halloween

A An altar decorated with several trinkets and lights of many colors, one of the Samhain rituals people may follow.

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Halloween wasn’t always Halloween. Most holidays people celebrate today are derived from ancient holidays — some are still practiced in modern times. Samhain, pronounced “sah-win,” is one of those holidays. It falls around the same time as Halloween and Día de los Muertos, so those holidays borrow some traditions and similarities with Samhain. Many Samhain rituals are practiced in the modern version of this holiday. Here’s everything you need to know about one of the oldest holidays still celebrated today.

What Is Samhain?

Celtic pagans were the first people to celebrate Samhain. It’s one holiday on a rich holiday calendar, featuring ones you may have heard of, like Ostara and Yule, as well as smaller celebrations. Around 70% of people celebrate Halloween, but fewer celebrate Samhain, the elder of the two days.

Samhain is one of the four traditional fire festivals, and families often commemorated the holiday by leaving a blaze in their fireplaces as they collected the harvest outside. Samhain was a celebration to usher in the darker half of the year and commemorate the dead, similar to both Halloween and Día de los Muertos.

Contrary to what some may believe, the holiday does not involve any ritualistic sacrifices. It is a more religious holiday focusing on the spiritual aspect of departed loved ones. Many people believe their deceased relatives come to visit, in a sense, during this time. It might help bring a person closure if they recently said goodbye to someone. 

Samhain takes place on October 31 and November 1, from sunset to sunset. People celebrate it differently, but Samhain rituals typically focus on connecting with the world and spirits around them.

7 Samhain Rituals You Might See Today

Since the 1980s, Wiccans and many others have taken up the celebration of this pagan holiday, among others throughout the year. Many of these celebrations look similar to traditional Samhain rituals. Though it may have led to the modern-day Halloween holiday, Samhain looks a little different from the popular holiday. Here are some of the practices you might see with modern-day Samhain celebrations.

1. A Huge Feast

Because Samhain was meant in part to celebrate the harvest, it makes sense that a celebrating household should have a meaningful dinner together. This sense of togetherness can bring a family under one roof to celebrate their loved ones who have passed on. Traditionally, people also set a place at the table for the deceased, as if allowing them to celebrate the evening with them.

Eating meals together can improve several factors in family dynamics, like strengthening relationships and easing any stress from home life. In turn, these might lead to better grades at school or less tension at work. People who spend time with the ones they love may feel closer overall, and it might ease the symptoms of grief or loneliness after losing a loved one. Samhain can promote togetherness.

2. Cemetery Visits

Since people believe they can communicate with lost loved ones a bit easier during this time, they may take more trips to the cemetery. As the darker half of the year ushers in, people might want to do a “spring cleaning” of gravesites. Tending to graves is just one of the many Samhain rituals, one that can help people feel closer to their family and friends.

3. Nature Walks

During the time of Samhain, the veil between the realms of the living and the dead is thinner. People who feel at home in the woods may want to take a walk through nature during the holiday weekend. It’s a way to reconnect to the earth and remember that all humans are connected to nature, whether they regularly partake in it.

If you go on a walk to celebrate, consider finding a piece of nature and bringing it back with you — if the location allows you to take things like rocks or wildflowers. Walking in nature has other benefits beyond reconnecting you to the earth. For example, it can lower your high blood pressure, which might otherwise lead to cardiovascular disease or other heart-related conditions.

4. Bread Baking

Traditionally, one of the Samhain rituals is baking bread. Popular foods of this holiday consist of seasonal vegetables since this holiday also celebrates the coming of the harvest in the latter half of the year. Bread is one of the staples. Fall flavors reign supreme, so you may see a lot of pumpkin bread during this time. Often, people share this bread with their loved ones, even those who aren’t here anymore.

5. Setting Up an Altar

Since grief can be isolating, those who celebrate Día de los Muertos typically celebrate life and death as a community, easing some of the pain of being alone. At this time, people also create altars to commemorate their loved ones — altars they make as intricate or as simple as they like. Samhain rituals also call for potentially setting up an altar.

If a person chooses to make an altar for Samhain, they can decorate it with memories of their loved ones. Alternatively, they might adorn it with symbols of fall, like acorns and crispy leaves. Another great idea is to leave some autumn-themed foods there. Cider and bread baked for the holiday are common offerings that celebrate the harvest and invite deceased loved ones to partake.

6. Reminiscing on Memories

With a fast-paced life, you rarely have time to stop and look back at the things you should appreciate most of all. Samhain is the perfect time to pause and reflect on photos and memories. Life can be so short and fragile, so it’s best to celebrate it while you can — while also keeping alive the memories of the loved ones who went before. Many people may spend this time thinking of and talking about deceased friends and family.

7. Host a Bonfire

Since Samhain is one of the fire holidays, it only seems right to celebrate with a fire pit or a bonfire outside the home. According to tradition, these bonfires were lit in the past to keep witches and fairies away from farms. A similar practice created what folks now know as Jack-o-lanterns, though they weren’t pumpkins at the start of Samhain.

Nowadays, people may not worry too much about the fire warding off unwanted guests. Instead, it can be a nice way to gather together and reminisce over memories or scare one another with spooky ghost stories. Some Samhain rituals have changed slightly — instead of just keeping folks away, the modern bonfires bring people closer together.

Samhain Rituals Can Make You Appreciate Fall

Even if you don’t celebrate the holiday, some Samhain rituals might be healthy for you. Losing someone can be hard — Samhain reminds you to celebrate life and spend time with your loved ones while honoring your memories. Alternatively, it can help you appreciate the harvest and all the delicious food you can eat. This fall holiday, though ancient, can bring out the best of fall for you and your household.

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