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Halloween vs Samhain: Roots & Rituals

Discover the difference between Halloween & Pagan Holiday Samhain, and celebrate the shift into darkest part of the year.
pumpkins and candles in moody forest setting

Happy Halloween & Blessed [almost] Samhain!

I always like to think that one of the biggest blessings to connecting to my inner witch came from my family’s move to Canada in 1999. Halloween is not something that is traditionally celebrated much in Eastern Europe, and experiencing this holiday really stirred something within me every year.

First of all, let’s face it - chocolate is my weakness, but all jokes aside; this time of year always felt so magical and powerful for me. Not to mention, I absolutely loved any excuse to come up with creative costumes and craft them!

Halloween gets its Roots from Ancient Celtic holiday, Samhain

Of course, it all makes sense now, because I’m aware that Halloween and its many traditions got its roots from Samhain (“sow-win”), a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. As someone deeply connected to living in alignment with the cycles of nature, this was one of my initial introductions to the wheel of the year that taught me so much about living in reverence of the Goddess; our Creator, Mother Nature.

Because the Celts believed that the veil between worlds was breached during Samhain, they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, who were often the ones playing ‘tricks’ at this time of year.

Trick-or-treating is said to have been derived from ancient Irish and Scottish practices in the nights leading up to Samhain. In Ireland, mumming was the practice of putting on costumes, going door-to-door and singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment.

It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them.

Samhain is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in the dark half of the year. However, it does not always fall on these dates. For example, this year, Samhain actually lands on November 7th. At this time, the darkness begins to reign over the light, and we are called to face our fears & our shadows by going within. It’s no surprise that Samhain lands when the Sun (our consciousness) is in Scorpio.

Scorpio is ruled by the planet Pluto, lord of death & the underworld, so we can see where the connection to spirits and ancestors, as well as our own inner ‘underworld’ comes from at this time of year. This is a time of year when the veil between our realm and the spirit realm is the thinnest, so it is a time to honour those who came before us, face our shadows and or fears, and let go, so that we can make space for new life.

The Wheel of the Year & Exact Timing of Samhain
pagan wheel of the year art print
Pagan Wheel of the Year. Artist: Vicki Jordan

Within the Pagan Wheel of the Year, there are eight major sabbats and each is tied not only to one of the earthly cycles of harvest and the mythological cycle of the Goddess, but also the astrological wheel. The eight sabbats are separated into two primary groups: the quarter sabbats and the cross-quarter sabbats.

The quarter sabbats are the four equinoxes and solstices of the Spring Equinox (Ostara), Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox (Mabon), and Winter Solstice (Yule). They occur when the Sun shifts into one of the Cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn), which initiate the seasons.

The cross-quarter sabbats (also known as the fire festivals) fall halfway between succeeding quarter sabbats and include the festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain. Although most cross-quarter sabbats are usually celebrated on fixed dates, they actually have more ‘accurate’ astrological timing which can mean that the actual date can vary from year to year.

Since they are ‘midpoints’ between the quarter Sabbats, the cross-quarter sabbats actually occur when the Sun enters 15 degrees of each of the fixed signs (Imbolc - Aquarius, Beltane - Taurus, Lammas - Leo, Samhain - Scorpio). With that being said, Samhain occurs on November 7th this year, because that is when the Sun enters the 15th degree of Scorpio, marking the exact mid-point between the Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice, which occur at 0 degrees Libra and 0 degrees Capricorn, respectively.

Although Balkan tradition is rooted in ancient Greek religion, I have not yet uncovered a Greek-equivalent to Samhain. Knowing that Ancient Greek religion actually received its roots from Neolithic Goddess Spirituality of Crete, I feel aligned in honouring the Wheel of the Year in my own practice. Additionally, thanks to ancestry, I know that I have a small percentage of Irish blood, which compels me to follow ancient Celtic traditions.

Here are some of my favourite ways to honour the magic & power of Samhain:

Creating an ancestor altar*

As someone who never felt quite ‘Canadian enough” or “Yugoslavian enough’, this has become an important part of my spiritual practice - honouring and connecting to my ancestors and my roots.

This is particularly the case since the only grandma I really knew passed away last year. In a recent session I had with friend and powerful intuitive, Kim Banfield, a strong message came through from my Baka (grandma) - that I need to connect with my ancestors. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to call on my ancestors and my Baka when connecting to spirit.

You can do the same by:

  • Inviting in only ancestors that walk in peace during your rituals.

  • Placing family heirlooms or sentimental items on your altar.

  • Placing photos of passed loved ones on your altar.

  • Offering seasonal food, wine and pomegranate on your altar.

  • Offering coins for Mercury - the messenger between realms.

*Grab my FREE Altar Guide to help you create your sacred space.

Working with, crafting with or offering herbs to work with Samhain energy:
  • Rosemary for ancestral remembrance & protection.

  • Willow to face your shadows and accept the death & rebirth cycles of life.

  • Mugwort to connect with your subconscious & psychic powers through dreams.

  • Yew (do not ingest, as it is toxic) for working with ancestors.

Having a ‘dumb supper’:

This is an ancient Celtic tradition where food and cakes would be offered to the dead. Often, windows would be left open (weather permitting) to allow them to enter and feast. Today’s version may entail leaving an empty spot at your dinner table, and filling the plate with food, which you can then offer to the earth after.

Journal on your biggest fears.

What feels like it is too scary to face? And how can you gather the courage to do so?

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