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Samhain: Dancing with the Ancestors

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Frosted pumpkins on doorsteps and penny candy in plastic pumpkins, pomegranates and dime store masks and parties at school…These are a few of my favorite things!

One of the highlights of my childhood was marching in the Greeley Grade School Halloween parade. I was also selected two years in a row to decorate the uptown shops with a Halloween theme using tempura paint. My favorite scene to paint was a haunted mansion on a hill with a witch flying in front of the Full Moon. No wonder my favorite ride at Disneyland was the Haunted Mansion. Every Halloween I can’t get the Disney earworm out of my brain…”Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize!”

Many celebrants of Halloween are not aware that it is based on the Celtic holy day of Samhain (pronounced Sau-ihn) which originated in the British Isles. My Ancestors come from England, Ireland, and Scotland, so I am inclined to focus on the Celtic traditions. In recent years, pop culture has introduced the masses to the Latin holiday of Dia de Los Muertes, a time of honoring the ancestors over a period of 3 days which is at the same time as the American celebration of Halloween. Then animated film “Cocoa” also emphasized the symbols and traditions of “The Day of the Dead”. It involves elaborate altars with food offerings and marigolds and visits to the cemetery to celebrate and connect with loved ones on the “Other Side”. What many of you may not be aware of is that the Celtic traditions of Samhain are also rich and celebratory and are powerful rituals to embrace if your ancestry comes from Europe, particularly the British Isles.

Before I share my own practices, I would like to share what the Celtic Wheel is and how it is connected to the natural world. Indigenous peoples from all over the world connected to the rhythms and patterns of nature…their lives depended on it! The cycles of the sun and moon as well as the seasons brought different chores and needs.

The Celts of yesteryear started their annual calendar at Samhain…the first “Cross Quarter Holy Day” in their “Wheel” of holy days. Cross Quarter Days are holy days (the origin of the world holiday) that fall between the seasonal equinoxes and solstices. The Celtic holidays are as follows: Samhain, Winter Solstice, Imbolc, Spring Equinox, Beltaine, Summer Solstice, Lughnasa and Autumn Equinox. As they are between the equinoxes and solstices, the Cross Quarter Days are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasa. The sacred festivals are also associated with other names deriving from the Celtic culture such as Yule for Winter Solstice, Ostara for the Spring Equinox and Mabon for the Fall Equinox. May Day, known as Beltane, is a Celtic celebration that many of you might be familiar with and was actually celebrated in the New York public schools in the 1960’s when my husband was attending them. Did you ever dance around the May Pole? That is part of the Beltane tradition. I had the good fortune to travel to a Beltane Fest in Glastonbury, England, in 2015 and danced with the local villagers around a giant May pole carried up the hill in a festive procession.

Many of these pagan holidays became Christian practices when Christianity became dominant, such as Samhain being observed as All Saints’ Day and All Souls' Day or Imbolc becoming the feast day of St. Brighid or Bridget. It is recognized as Ground Hog’s Day in the U.S.

This brings us full circle to this week’s celebration of Samhain. The Celtic Year is waning, and in the northern hemisphere, nature is dying or going to sleep. This is a potent time to release irrational ideas, prejudices, and other limiting beliefs as well as habits that no longer serve. During this time of Covid, we all have had losses that occurred in this last turn around the Wheel. Loss of naïveté about the pain and suffering of others and the hatred that boils under the surface of so many human interactions….Loss of a feeling of safety and security…Perhaps loss of our and our loved ones’ health as well as actual deaths of some we know and may have been close to. You might feel grief and anger that has been denied rise and demand to be honored. Scorpio season is the time to dance with the shadows and the things that go bump in the night in your psyche.

Now is also a time when they say the veil between this and the Spirit World is thin, so it is important to honor and connect with the Ancestors. One of the ways that the ancient Celts did that was with what was called then a “Dumb Supper” and I now call an “Ancestors’ Feast”. This week a few friends and I will gather around the altar with our loved ones’ photos, favorite foods, and momentos and eat a meal silently (comprised of some of those favorite foods) while fondly remembering then. We will then circle around the fire pit and share stories of our Beloveds on the Other Side. This is a cherished tradition I have enacted through the years that is part of my rich cultural heritage.

So I encourage you to research and honor your ancestral traditions. Our Ancestors' stories and strengths live in our bones…with an awareness of the importance of bringing these stories alive at Samhain, their stories and ourstory as a peoples, lives on.

So as much as this time of year focuses on the dead, it is really about living. Have fun dancing with your beloved Ancestors...I raise a glass of cider to toast you and your Ancestors and the lessons learned along the way. To life! Slainte!

For more information about Samhain click here and the traditional “Dumb Supper” look here.

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