We call it the Season of the Witch; the season of autumn’s arrival, the harvesting of the crop, and the earth’s transition from life to rest. While deeply rooted in all of nature’s cycles, witches are most commonly associated with the autumn season and its ties to Halloween (cue the green skin and warts!) Whether we realize it or not, our North American society communally ritualizes in the way of the witch specifically during the October month via Ouija board and tarot reading parties, Halloween costumes, cemetery outings, and jack-o-lantern creations. Although most modernly referred to as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this national tradition and its associations with witches is historically and culturally influenced by the ancient Pagan festival of Samhain.
What is Samhain
About 2,000 years ago, the Celts, which inhabited what is now known as Ireland, Northern France, and the United Kingdom, rang in the Pagan new year on November 1st, celebrating the dawn of the harvest and embracing the approaching winter as a sabbat called Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
As Samhain falls between Mabon, the Fall Equinox, and Yule, the Winter Solstice, it welcomes in the “dark half of the year” with motherly open arms. A nature-worshipping people, the Celts assembled many of their traditions and rituals in correspondence to The Wheel of the Year or annual seasonal cycle. Like the spring equinox invokes celebration of sex and new life, Autumn and Winter meditate on the elderly and death.
Ancient texts reveal that Samhain was a mandatory three-day and three-night celebration where Celts burned hearth fires while they gathered the harvest, and sacrificed cattle and crop for the Goddesses and Gods at the following community bonfires. Failure to participate in the festival resulted in punishment by the gods and goddesses as opposed to the kings or chieftains. Like most Pagan sabbats, Samhain was a time to be gluttonous; Celts engaged in joyous feasts and heavy mead drinking all throughout the week as tribute to the dead and plentiful crop.
Not only were the deceased honored during Samhain, but they were also welcomed to partake in the festivities. Pagans believed that the veil between the physical world and the spirit realm was lifted on Samhain, allowing contact and communication.
This communication with spirits, a practice known as divination, was carried out by Druids and in the middle ages “dumb suppers” or dinners inviting the deceased, were commonly held. Spirits of loved ones and fairies were said to play tricks on villagers, encouraging the Celts to dress as monsters and animals to avoid fairy kidnappings or pranks.
The middle ages also introduced Celtic cautionary tales such as Stingy Jack into the Pagan community, persuading children to carve and hang turnips called jack-o-lanterns as protective amulets. As Christianity spread into the Celtic lands, the church attempted to extinguish the Pagan religion by renaming the sabbats as Christian holidays.
All Saints’ Day was assigned on November 2nd and adopted Celtic traditions such as bonfires and costumes into its celebration in hopes of encouraging the community to participate. Over time, the night prior to All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween.
European immigration brought Halloween to the United States, thriving predominantly in southern colonies and Maryland as New England was under strict Protestant rule. At the end of the nineteenth century, millions of Irish natives immigrated to the United States in response to the Irish Potato Famine, furthering American knowledge of All Hallows Eve and popularizing the holiday on a national level.
How to Celebrate Samhain
Modern-day witches — Pagan, Neopagan, or not – continue to celebrate the traditional Samhain or All Hallows Eve as honoring their ancestry or influence. Bonfires and witches’ balls are organized within the occult population for witches to come together for a night of spell casting and fortune-telling. Dumb suppers, either as a group feast or a solitary ceremony, are very popular during the Samhain season.
There is even an annual “Mourning Tea” event that happens in my hometown, Salem, Massachusetts. Witches reunite with their loved ones who have passed by setting a physical and spiritual place for them at the table. You might even consider cooking their favorite meal or playing their favorite song for them.
The altar, the dominant place of worship for a witch, can be decorated for Samhain with harvested crops such as turnips, pumpkins, and apples. The altar is also the perfect honorary shrine for those who have passed from this life; you may consider dressing it with photographs of your passed loved ones, sprigs of rosemary for remembrance, and snake bones for communication with the dead. These altar objects both pay homage and invoke trusted souls which can then be reached by mirror or crystal ball divination, pendulum, or tarot cards.
Understandably, not everyone wants to welcome spirit contact, so altar decorations can be transformed to be banishing. Place graveyard dirt or black salt in all four corners of your altar and burn black candles and angelica root incense to protect yourself from unwanted spirits. As this night marks the new year, it is ideal for performing healing and banishing spells. A simple ceremony could involve a black candle as representing what you want to rid yourself (or others) of in the coming year and a white candle as manifesting what you wish to see more of.
While our children dress as pirates and we fool around with the tarot, our nation partakes in an ancient Pagan tradition made dominate by the Christian church and brought to America by Irish and Scottish immigrants. While many Pagans engage in witchcraft-like rituals, not all Pagans consider themselves to be “witches” and vice versa; not all witches practice the Pagan or Neopagan religions.
Ceremony is personal, sacred. It knows no limitations and it is up to you to define it. With this approaching Samhain, I urge you to address and explore the witch that is unquestionably inside of you without allegiance to a specific thought process, religion, or intent. Have a picnic in the cemetery, feast with friends, past and present, and acknowledge both the wisdom and faults of those who have lived before you. Must be the season of the witch!