HOW TO CREATE A SAMHAIN ALTAR

chalice well samhain

chalice well samhain

In this blog, I’ll be exploring the Celtic festival day Samhain, what it is, its spiritual significance, how we may experience its energy, and how to create a Samhain altar. 

WHAT IS SAMHAIN?

Samhain is a festival in the Celtic Wheel of the Year. It takes place on 31st October in the northern hemisphere and on 1st May in the southern hemisphere, about halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. 

The word Samhain mean’s ‘summer’s end’, and it is seen as the Celtic new year. 

At this time of the year, the days are getting much shorter and the nights longer. Samhain acknowledges this coming of the darkness and going of the light.

THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR

The Wheel of the Year is celebrated by many spiritual seekers all over the world, including pagans, Wiccans, witches of all kinds, and also nature-lovers who do not follow a specific spiritual tradition. 

It celebrates the turning of the seasons, and those who follow its rhythms mark its seasonal festival days or ‘Sabbats’. The dates for these celebration days are different in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Samhain is one of the ‘Greater Sabbats’ or ‘cross-quarter days’ in the Wheel of the Year. The Greater Sabbats are fire festivals that were often celebrated at the time of the new or full moon, with communities coming together to celebrate around a great fire. 

For more information about and rituals to honour the Wheel of the Year, you can join my membership here.

WHAT DOES SAMHAIN SYMBOLISE?

Samhain is a time for introspection and going within to reflect on everything that has happened in the past year. It is also traditionally a time when we honour and connect with our ancestors (see more on this below).

At Samhain, we see decay and death in the nature around us – the leaves on the trees are dying and falling to the ground, and the vibrant floral displays of summer have either already disappeared or are now fading. 

As winter approaches and darkness descends, this is a time of silence and stillness. A pause in the year where an ending is taking place, making way for a new beginning. We can now take the time to think back on the last twelve months and consider what we have learnt over this time, what may have run its course in our lives, and what we wish to take forward with us into the coming year.

This is also the ideal time of year to bring light to anything that is lurking in the shadows… anything that you may not have fully admitted or expressed, even to yourself. Be gentle with this; if issues reveal themselves, you don’t need to make any dramatic changes right away; bringing your awareness to these things and voicing them out loud to yourself is enough to start with.

Samhain is also a time of renewal – as nature begins to bed down, ready to rest over the winter months, so too do we retreat indoors and begin to slow down our activities, in favour of rest, recuperation, and quiet contemplation.

And while the warmth and revelry of summer may now feel very far away, nature reminds us that everything is part of a cycle, and that this half of the year, when we and all of life go within, is just as important for our growth as the light that the warmer days will bring. As we honour this part of the year, we can now shed the old, and allow for new life, new ideas and new energy to begin to germinate, ready to burst through when the moment is right.

CONNECTING WITH OUR ANCESTORS AT SAMHAIN

Samhain is one of three nights during the year when the veil between the spirit world and ours is said to be at its thinnest; the other two are Beltane and the Summer Solstice.

Some teachers I have worked with speak of the importance of connecting to our ancestors as a first step to communing with the unseen spiritual world. A first step to begin connecting to spirit. 

Samhain was truly the night of the ancestors in the Celtic tradition, and connecting with and honouring your ancestors is one of the most powerful things that you can do at this time of the year. 

I find it very healing to spend time every Samhain remembering the stories I have learnt about my own ancestors, honouring their spirits and sending them healing. 

CREATING A SAMHAIN ALTAR

You can create a special ancestral altar for Samhain using photos and other items that connect you to your ancestors.

Your ancestral altar can also honour your own roots, the land you live on, the ancestors of this land and the ancestors of your spiritual lineage, if you have one. You can light candles, add flowers or other plants and offer prayers to your ancestors. 

Rebecca Campbell altar

Candles, flowers and water

As with normal altars, it is common to include the elements in your ancestral altar. So fire could be represented with a candle that you light, earth could be symbolised through a crystal or stone or flowers, water through sacred water or the waters of the flowers. 

Photos and personal objects

On my altar I have pictures of a selection of my ancestors, as well as a couple of family objects that they owned such as prayer beads, a cloth and a book that one of them gave my grandmother. I also ask my ancestors what they would like and if I get a clear answer I place that thing on my altar. 

Ancestral Guidance Box

The other thing I have on my ancestral altar is a guidance box. I write any questions I have for my ancestors that I would like answers to on pieces of paper and place them inside the box. 

Selecting what ancestors to put on your altar

One question I get asked a lot is how to know what ancestors to put on your altar. I have discovered that especially when starting out, it is best to start with just a couple of ancestors who you have a relationship with who you might see as good supporters for you. For example, select the grandmother who you had a special connection with and was a supportive person over the one that might not have been as supportive. 

autumn equinox
Colours of the seasons

The colour black is associated with Samhain, representing as it does the subconscious, the shadows, the dark, the night, and the coming winter. Orange has also come to be associated with this season; it is the colour of the pumpkins that grow in abundance at this time of the year and also the colour of the flames that we see in Samhain bonfires. You may like to use these colours in your Samhain altar. You could also choose to include autumn leaves in varying shades of red, gold, orange and brown. As well as autumn leaves, you could include harvest foods such as pumpkins or other gourds. If you would like to include some greenery, ivy can work well on a Samhain altar.

Feeding your altar

When we create an altar, we are really creating an ‘altered’ space, so the more we feed the altar, the more powerful and alive this altered space becomes.

You may choose to have our ancestral altar up for a short time, or you could have it up continuously. Regardless of how long you keep your ancestral altar in place, as with any altar, it’s important to feed it. Feeding an altar is very simple and is something that we tend to do naturally. To feed your altar you may keep it clean, add items to it, freshen the water or replace a candle etc. 

If you are working with particular ancestors, you may like to offer them food or drink. One of my ancestors loved red wine and good food, and so I sometimes place these things as offerings for him onto my ancestral altar.

Another way to feed your altar is through your devotion. This could be you meditating, praying or speaking to your ancestors.

HOW TO CREATE YOUR ANCESTRAL ALTAR

 

Step 1: Decide where to create your Samhain altar

Decide where you would like to create your Samhain altar. In many traditions it is common to place a white cloth down, although I do not believe this is always necessary, as intention is more powerful than doing things a certain way. Trust how you are led.

Step 2: Choose which ancestors you want to connect with

Write down a list of 2-4 ancestors from your paternal and maternal lines who you feel a connection with and feel it would be supportive for you to connect to. If possible place a photo of them or an object of theirs on your Samhain altar. If you don’t have either of those things, you can just write down their names on a piece of paper and place the paper onto your altar.

Step 3: Add anyone else your would like to honour

If you would like to extend your ancestral altar to those outside of your family lines, add any people passed or spiritual lineage connections that you are drawn to.

Step 4: Build your Samhain Altar

Feel free to decorate your altar with any other objects that are meaningful to you and ideally represent the elements (fire, water, air and earth). You might also like to have a small ‘guidance box’ which you can fill with any questions or requests for guidance to your ancestors.

Step 5: Feed your Samhain Altar

Feed your altar each day through prayer, meditation, lighting incense or a candle, freshening water or flowers, or writing any questions you are living into and placing them onto the altar. You can also ask your ancestors if there is anything that they would like to receive. Another way of connecting with your ancestors is through written meditation so you may be called to get a journal for you to intuitively converse with them in.

If you’d like some inspiration on other ways to celebrate Samhain, you can find a special module in my Membership focusing on this topic. It includes ideas for marking this festival day and a special meditation to connect you with the Cailleach, a Grandmother or Crone Goddess that I love to work with at this time of the year.

The Cailleach can help you to descend deeper into the fertile void within you, and allow yourself to honour the energies present at this time of the year by resting, regenerating and allowing what is falling away to do so, nourishing the seeds of what is to come. She can help us to let a part of our lives, or even who we once were, metaphorically die in order to seed, sprout, bud, and bloom again.

My Membership is filled with practices (meditations, Soul Journeys, classes and rituals) so that no matter how long you have or what type of practice would most nourish you, there is always something that you can reach for. And it also includes information about and rituals to honour the special days when the Wheel of the Year turns.

If you’d like to explore deepening your spiritual practice this year, we would love to have you join us! You can find out more here.