Samain or Samuin was the name of the festival marking the beginning of winter in medieval Ireland. It is attested in some of the earliest literture, dating back as far as the 10th century. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Samhain and Beltane, at the opposite sides of the year from each other, are thought to have been the most important.

Samhain was one of the four main festivals of the Gaelic calendar, marking the last harvest and beginning of winter. It was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought down to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. And it was also the time to choose which animals would need to be slaughtered for the people to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock because it is when meat will keep since the freeze has come and also since summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible.

Samhain is known by most folks as Halloween, but for Wiccans and Pagans it’s considered a Sabbat to honor the ancestors who came before us. It’s a good time to contact the spirit world with a seance, because it’s the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.

By Sanhain, the Goddess has entered her incarnation of Crone. She is the Old One, the earth mother, the wise one we turn to when we need advice. She teaches us that sometimes we must let go in order to move on. The God, at Samhain, is the Horned One, the stag of great antlers, the god of the wild hunt. He is the animal that dies so that we may eat, and the grains and corn that once lived in the field before our harvest. We can honor these late-fall aspects of both the Goddess and the God in one ritual.

How To Celebrate the Cycle of Life and Death

  1. For this ritual, you’ll want to decorate your altar with symbols of life and death. You’ll want to have on hand a white candle and a black one, as well as black, red, and white ribbon in equal lengths (one set for each participant). Finally, you’ll need a few sprigs of rosemary.

    Perform this rite outside if at all possible. If you normally cast a circle, do so now.

  2. Say:
    “Samhain is here, and it is a time of transitions. The winter approaches, and the summer dies. This is the time of the Dark Mother, a time of death and of dying. This is the night of our ancestors and of the Ancient Ones.”

    Place the rosemary on the altar. If you are doing this as a group ceremony, pass it around the circle before placing on the altar. Say:
    “Rosemary is for remembrance, and tonight we remember those who have lived and died before us, those who have crossed through the veil, those who are no longer with us. We will remember.”

  3. Turn to the north, and say:
    “The north is a place of cold, and the earth is silent and dark. Spirits of the earth, we welcome you, knowing you will envelope us in death.”

    Turn to face the east, and say:
    “The east is a land of new beginnings, the place where breath begins. Spirits of air, we call upon you, knowing you will be with us as we depart life.”

  4. Face south, saying:
    “The south is a land of sunlight and fire, and your flames guide us through the cycles of life. Spirits of fire, we welcome you, knowing you will transform us in death.”

    Finally, turn to face the west, and say:
    “The west is a place of underground rivers, and the sea is a never-ending, rolling tide. Spirits of water, we welcome you, knowing you will carry us through the ebbs and flows of our life.”

  5. Light the black candle, saying:
    “The Wheel of the Year turns once more, and we cycle into darkness.”

    Next, light the white candle, and say:
    “At the end of that darkness comes light. And when it arrives, we will celebrate once more.”

  6. Each person takes a set of ribbons — one white, one black, and one red. Say:
    “White for life, black for death, red for rebirth. We bind these strands together remembering those we have lost.”

    Each person should then braid or knot their three ribbons together. As you do so, focus on the memories of those you have lost in your life.

  7. While everyone is braiding or knotting, say:
    “Please join me in chanting as you work your energy and love into your cords:

    As the corn will come from grain,
    All that dies will rise again.
    As the seeds grow from the earth,
    We celebrate life, death and rebirth.”
    When everyone has finished braiding and chanting, take a moment to meditate on the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Is there someone you know who reminds you of a person you’ve lost? Have you ever looked into a baby’s eyes and seen your late grandfather looking back?

  8. Finally, ask everyone to take their knotted ribbons home with them and place them on their personal altar if they have one. That way, they can be reminded of their loved ones each time they pass by.

Tips:

  1. Rosemary is used in this rite because although it seems to go dormant over the winter, if you keep it in a pot you’ll get new growth in the spring. If there’s another plant you’d rather use, feel free.

What You Need

  • Ribbon in black, red and white
  • A white candle and a black one
  • Rosemary

Soul Cakes

These are part of the traditional English Hallowe’en festivities. Traditionally these were flat round cakes flavoured with saffron, mixed spices and currants. Indeed, during the 19th and early 20th centuries children would go ‘souling’ on All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) where they would request alms or soul cakes with the following song:

“A soul, a soul, a soul cake. Please god missus a soul cake. An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, Any good thing to make us merry. Up with your kettles and down with your pans Give us an answer and we’ll be gone Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate Crying for butter to butter his cake One for St Peter, two for St Paul, Three for the man who made us all.”

Soul Cakes were also part of All Saints’ Eve superstitions. It was believed that the spirits of the departed would return to their homes on this night. As a result candles were lit to guide their way and food and drink (including soul cakes) were put out for them.

 

Soul Cakes

A good pinch of saffron
Warm milk
6 oz. butter
6 oz. caster sugar (a sugar that is finer than granulated but coarser than powdered)
3 egg yolks
1 lb. plain flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon mixed spice
3 oz currants

Pre-set oven to 350 degrees F. Soak saffron in a little warmed milk. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg yolks. Sieve flour, salt, and spices together and add to mixture. Lastly add currants and drained saffron milk. Add more milk if necessary, to make a soft dough. Make into flat cakes, mark each one across top, and bake on a greased baking tray in pre-heated oven for about 15 minutes or until brown. (
_The National Trust Book of Christmas & Festive Day Recipes_, by Sara Paston-Williams.)

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