Samhain (pronounced “sow-inn”) is my favorite sabbat — or pagan holiday — to celebrate every year.
Samhain falls on October 31st. Many Americans celebrate a modern version of this holiday as Halloween.
According to its Celtic roots, Samhain is the New Year which falls on the cusp of fall and winter. Like many other pagan sabbats, Samhain is a time to go inward and reflect on the changing of the season. It’s also a time to connect with those you’ve lost, and to celebrate with those you love.
Discover the connection between Samhain and the tarot and a few ways to celebrate Samhain with your friends or coven this fall.
Samhain and the Tarot
If Samhain were a Tarot card, it’d either be Death or The Hanged One — both drawn from the drama of the major arcana.
In most decks, the Death card features a skeletal figure (human) atop a white steed that’s traveling through a field of the dying or the dead. Other times he dances, or harvests the last of summer’s bounty with his scythe — just as we prepare to move inside to find shelter by the hearth, and inward to find shelter in our hearts.
The Death card in tarot doesn’t portend an actual death to come, but rather a metaphorical death.
Samhain marks the end of autumn as winter encroaches. As the world around us dies, we retreat into the restorative space of hibernation — a temporary and spiritual death.
We slow down into the introspective coziness of winter to pursue intellectual and imaginative endeavors like reading and reflection. We take time to dream our tomorrow-selves into being, so we can be birthed anew come Yule — when the goddess gives birth to the sun/son god and the days begin to grow longer than the night.
The Hanged Man tarot card generally depicts a human figure hanging upside-down from a gallows — the wood either cut from the Tree of Life or the tree itself. They’re still alive, showing they have descended into an underworld of their very own, suspended in the darkness of their shadow self.
Focus on the “cross” from which the hanged being dangles and the way their body draws the numeral “4” with their leg: The Hanged One is The Crossroads, that sacred intersection where we meet the Invisible.
Samhain is a crossroads where summer walks away to bring us the rest and nest of winter. It’s when the veil between this world and the next is its thinnest, so that the dead may visit us. The wind strips the trees of their leaves to reveal their skeletons only to be reborn in the spring.
When we perform a crossroads spell during Samhain, we ask for something and in exchange we must leave something behind — a sacrifice, a shedding, an offering before we walk away from this holy place without ever looking back.
As we leave something at The Crossroads, we do this for our ancestors, acting as the gracious hosts these spirits need.
How to Celebrate Samhain
There are many ways to celebrate Halloween, including dressing up in costume and passing out candy to trick-or-treaters. While these are lovely traditions, below are a few traditional ways to celebrate Samhain — the pagan origin of Halloween — this October.
Create a Samhain Altar
Samhain is the one night of the year when we act as the guide and protector for the spirits of those we love. This is a time to give thanks for the way our ancestors continue to guide and protect us forever. To help these spirits find their way back to you, build a shrine in your home.
My Samhain altar from 2019
I have an altar in my living room I decorate in accordance to the passing seasons/sabbats. For Samhain, I arrange portraits of my dearly departed on my altar that includes friends and family who have passed, as well as other “ancestors” I’ve adopted — like the writers and witches who paved the road for me as my guides.
I place keepsakes that remind me of my beloveds on this shrine, and squeeze in as many candles as I can. I also string up marigolds if I have them.
Sadly, every New Year brings more ghosts to populate this place, so I’ve taken to using string and clothespins to hang any pictures without frames. To further lure these spirits home, I leave treats I know they loved while alive. Legend has it that this is the one time of year they can indulge in earthly delights — thus a pack of Lucky Strikes for Little Bob, flowers for my mother, etc.
When I celebrate Samhain with my coven or my family, we gather around the altar, light the candles, and give life to our dead by telling their stories to each other. What might seem solemn or macabre never is: while tears are shed, laughter always wins.
Connecting with beloved spirits on Samhain doesn’t have to be a frightening experience. The spirits who come calling do so because they’re drawn to our love for them — and theirs for us.
I raised my daughters with this practice, and I believe it taught them to be less afraid of death. They’d add pictures of pets they’d lost when they were little. As they grew older, they added pictures of people they’d lost, too. They learned where they came from by listening to the stories, helping them to understand the preciousness of life.
Enjoy a Samhain Feast
Samhain should also be a feast! As we feed the fairies on Beltane, now we feed our dead on Samhain.
A Samhain spread might include baked pumpkins with a hearty stew served inside. You can also bake savory or sweet breads (in a fun skull-shaped or coffin-shaped mold), make hot cider, and bake apple pies.
We always make one plate for our ancestors, and leave that seat at the table empty while we dine. Once we’ve eaten, we take the plate outside and leave it at a threshold (a crossroads) for the ghosts to enjoy next.
Reflect and Celebrate this Samhain
I love Samhain for the rituals it invites, and the chance to share space with my mother and oldest daughter again, who are both gone from this world.
This photo on the left is my oldest daughter Kaya just a year or two before she died in 2018. On the right is me caring for my mother when she was dying from pancreatic cancer at home in 2013 (taken by Kaya).
Samhain is also when my husband and I got married, as we wanted all our loved ones there. We wanted to step into the pagan New Year as the individuals we were becoming and by recognizing all the ways we are one.
A picture of me dancing with my husband at the reception that followed our Samhain wedding in 2005. Outside the frame is a community altar for the Dead, where my family placed their Dearly Departed, as did the living guests who attended the marriage ceremony and after party.
Share Your Samhain Traditions With Us
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
Sarah Elizabeth Schantz (she/her/hers) grew up in a bookstore and discovered the Occult when she was 9-years-old. She’s been a practicing witch ever since. Her novel Fig was selected as A Best Read of the Year by NPR and won a Colorado Book Award in 2016. Her next novel, Roadside Altars, has chapters based on the major arcana. Schantz employs the Tarot and other divinatory techniques to inform her writing process, and has been collaging her own Tarot deck since 2006. She is faculty at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and teaches her own writing series, (W)rites of Passage, and Tarot Tuesdays, a generative writing series that uses the Tarot. Her apothecary, The Witch Next Door, offers Tarot readings, customized rituals, and handcrafted spells.