As Samhain nears, there is a delicious crackle in the air, a suppressed energy that tickles the subconscious and begs to be explored. Psychic fairs pop up all over the landscape and the supernatural seems but a hands-breadth away. Witches and ghosts and skeletons arrive on the doorstep, ready to decorate our humdrum lives, reminding us that the otherworld is closer than it might appear. Magic and mysticism are celebrated everywhere. It is the time of the Witch.
Yet, at the heart of the Samhain holiday, at its very root, is death. At this time of the year, the world is sliding into darkness. The earth lies fallow, resting after the hard harvest work. Plants and flowers die. Animals begin the long climb into hibernation. Is it any wonder that we hold own sacred dead, our ancestors, at the very heart of the celebration? As the Earth and the Sun begin their descent into darkness, our minds naturally ponder our own mortality and remember loved ones who have gone before us into the great beyond.
Death is a fact of life. We all die. Yet, we all live on in our children, our nieces and nephews, our blood kin that succeed our moral time on this Earth. We live on in their memories and stories, in their quirky habits and crooked smiles. We are honored not just through their remembrance of us but also through the living of their lives. We are a part of their soul memory, housed in the tiny structures that form the building blocks of life. We are always a part of them (whether they know it or not).
So as the days grow shorter and the Crone goddess stirs her cauldron of life-death-and-rebirth, it is time to heed the song that sings just under the surface of our consciousness. Our blood kin wait beyond the veil, ready to aid us, to heal and comfort us, to lend us strength. And if they have been reincarnated already, their knowledge and wisdom flow through our veins, if only we silence our chatter and listen.
The following activity forces you to slow down in order to truly and deeply connect to your personal ancestors. It compels you to unite with those in your life who have passed on and to invite them, once again, into your life. Since the activity pushes you to look death squarely in the face, it would be easy to rush through it without giving it the necessary thought and attention. But resist this notion. Allow yourself the time to slow down and welcome your ancestors back into your life.
You will need to purchase a candle for each of your remembered relatives who you wish to honor. This part sounds simple, but is crucial to your overall experience. Each candle must remind you of your relative, in color and/or scent. Many candle companies produce fragrant candles for every occasion. Traditionally, I find their scents to be somewhat overwhelming, but in this ritual activity, you are luring the spirits of your relatives closer to you, in heart as well as body. Powerful scents help to connect this world with the otherworld and will create a welcoming atmosphere for your ancestors in your home.
Choosing the scent of the candles is my favorite part of this activity and should be done with reverence and intent. Don’t rush out on October 29 to purchase your candles. Begin thinking about your relatives in the beginning of October and research different candle companies for just the right scent. Think of finding just the right candle as an elaborate scavenger hunt. Look and listen, keeping an open mind. Do not become fixated on one specific idea for your relatives. Rather, allow your ancestors to direct you to the appropriate scents and colors. I still remember the excitement and love I felt when I stumbled across a candle called Green Grass, a scent especially evocative of my grandfather who, in his later years, constantly mowed the grass to “get out of the house.”
Once you have purchased your candles, set aside a time (a week or so before Samhain) when you can spend about an hour alone. Performing this part of the ritual at night will aid you in connecting with your ancestors, as the night is often a time associated with spirits. The evening hours are also usually quieter and calmer than the daytime, so you will undoubtedly find it easier to quiet your mind and stay focused on your goal. However, if you simply have no free time in the evening, with the right intention and focus, this part of the activity can be done anytime during the day. Set up sacred space by lighting incense and playing your favorite meditative music. You can visualize a protective circle around you, but I have found that a formal circle is not necessary as long as you have the right mindset and are able to alter your perceptions in order to contact and be open to the otherworld.
Be sure to spend some time breathing deeply before you begin any ritualized activity. Since you will be working with energies outside the earth realm, it is a good idea to ground and center as well. Simply visualize your spine lengthening and forming an underground root system. Breathe the Earth’s energy into your body and breathe out any stress, anxiety, and negativity, using the root system of your spine. (Be sure to ask Mother Earth to transmute your negative energy into positive energy.) Once you feel very relaxed and filled with the Earth’s energy, visualize a white ball of energy descending from the cosmos. Feel it enter your head and travel down your spine, aligning all of your energy centers. When it reaches the bottom of your spine, allow the white ball to travel back up your spine and leave your head, bathing you in protective and stimulating white light. You are now connected to the energy of Mother Earth and Father Sky. You are grounded and centered and should feel relaxed and energized.
Take each candle in turn and hold it in your hand. Smell the candle and, with your eyes closed, visualize your ancestor. See your relative doing a simple task. Hear the words of her voice. Feel the breath of those words. Sense the power of the breath and allow it into yourself. In your mind, replay all the wonderful (and perhaps challenging) aspects of your relationship with your ancestor. Take as much time as you need to truly conjure your ancestor’s spirit from within yourself. This may be a very emotional experience, so give yourself the freedom to express any feelings and sentiments. When you feel ready, inscribe the name of your relative on the candle, using one of your ritual tools or a regular knife that you have cleansed with sacred water or herbs, and then anoint the candle with sacred oil. (Any oil can be sacred if you will it to be so. Don’t feel obliged to purchase or make specific magical, spiritual oil. You can just as easily use the olive oil in your kitchen cabinet.)
The type of candle and candleholder you use will depend on the way you wish to honor your ancestors. If you are fortunate enough to live near the gravesites of your relatives, I recommend placing the candles at the actual gravestone on the night of Samhain. Votive candles will work best for this situation and the holder should be fairly deep to protect the fragile flame from wind. I usually burn my candles a week before the holiday to make sure they are deep enough in the candleholder to withstand the elements. A little before sunset, go to the gravesites of your relatives. Be sure to bring your candles, a candleholder, a lighter, and an apple for each relative (the traditional Celtic food of the dead), a sharp knife, and some bright and showy flowers. Chrysanthemums and marigolds are the traditional flowers of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, so you might consider buying them or purchasing flowers that most remind you of your relatives. At each gravesite, honor your ancestor with a few words and place some of the flowers on the ground. (If you live in a warm climate, consider bringing live plants with you and plant them in the ground.) Light the candle, then cut one apple in half, around the middle, revealing the star pattern. Leave all the lit candles, the apples, and the flowers at the gravesites and collect the candleholders the following day.
If you do not have access to the gravesites of your ancestors, set up your candles on your ritual altar or in a place of special significance for you. You can light the candles ahead of time or wait until Samhain to light them for the very first time. I personally like to light my candles in remembrance for several days ahead of time, making sure there is enough wax so that the candle burns throughout the night of Samhain. (Or, at least, until you go to bed!) Again, be sure to offer flowers and food to your dead relatives by purchasing flowers and cutting an apple in half for each ancestor you are honoring. If you’d like to include pictures or mementos of your relatives, place those on your altar as well.
Through this simple act of remembrance, you are honoring all those who have gone before you; the people whose essence resides in your physical body, whose words shape your sense of self, whose spirits skim along the edges of your intuition. Your ancestors are a powerful source of solace and well-being. They spring eternal in the movements of your hands, the thoughts in your mind, and the emotions of your heart. They have experienced the ebb and flow of life, the joys, the sorrows, the achievements and defeats. Learn from them. Their hands reach to you through the mists, ready and willing to join with yours. They are a part of you. Welcome them home.