Samhain, when the veil is thin

pumpkin-headFrom the seasonal acknowledgement of dying plants and animals at the Autumn Equinox, we shift our focus to life/death transition on the human plane: Samhain.  I think of this time as the Heart-of-the-Dark.  While day and night were balanced at Mabon, the nights have grown longer still ever since the autumnal equinox and continue to do so until Yule.  Samhain falls in the middle of this ever-darker time, celebrated on October 31st as All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, with the related traditions of All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, celebrated as Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and in U.S. cities that boast a large Spanish population.

Tom altar 2If you’ve never experienced Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—I recommend it highly.  There’s a carnival/ spiritual mix to these proceedings that initially surprised me.  Families go to graveyards to clean and decorate, then picnic near the headstones of their ancestors, setting out platters of the departed one’s favorite foods for the spirit now hovering nearby.  Children receive skull-shaped candies with their own names written across the foreheads—muy macabre.  These are mestizo traditions, a mixture of Aztec and Catholic.  In Denver, a variety of activities are presented at several of the city’s alternative art galleries.  Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis at West 37th Avenue and Navajo, mount a large annual celebration, hosting neighborhood activities such as altar-building and a candlelight procession, honoring those who have departed.  Bright colors abound.  Altars contain ofrendas—offerings—and are poignant, heart-rending, funny and mournful by turns, and often very beautiful.  Fragrant copal scents the air, bands and dancers perform, and there’s a giant, wild piñata for the kids, followed by a grown-up version, stuffed with adult toys and treats.  Such festive pursuits aside, the altar-building is very serious, often containing pictures of the deceased, perhaps details of their demise, objects that were significant to the person, as well as anything that might honor, amuse or entertain their visiting spirit.    

I’ve gradually added elements of these Spanish traditions to my Wiccan practices.  A group altar, constructed by one’s entire coven with photographs and  significant objects, is a powerful sight.  The favorite dishes of our deceased compatriots become our potluck feast, and spirit-servings are placed on a platter on the altar, which occupies most of the west wall.  This year, my mother’s picture will join the others.

Though recent losses predominate, this can be extended to cover any passing from years past that still feels unfinished or rawa miscarriage or abortion from years back, a grandparent’s death one was “sheltered from” as a child.  This is a cathartic working and shouldn’t be rushed, and needs some resolution, some closure of its own.

To suitably release the grief and other emotions raised, this remembering can be followed by a ceremony called “Pushing Through” that comes from the Pomo Indian tradition.  Participants arrange themselves so they’re all facing the same way (again, west is a logical choice) in a boat-shaped wedge.  Those with drums or rattles begin pounding up a high, building energy; those without instruments act out the rowing, or sit and concentrate—all are in contact, touching at least at knee or shoulder.  The energies build, until, on a verbal cue from whomever’s leading this, all slowly and forcefully lift their hands, as if boosting the spirits upward and releasing anything they may be holding onto that could keep these souls from fully crossing over.

Another wonderful theme comes a large public Samhain ritual in Berkeley, California, that I attended in 1995. It was created by women in the Reclaiming Collective.  They ended their evening by inviting participants to call out the names of children born within the preceding twelve months.  Balance!  We say farewell to those who have passed and welcome back those who have reincarnated here on the earthly plane.  This acknowledgement of new life gives a pleasing closure to Samhain rites, an emotional symmetry.  It’s also something of a reminder on this particular holiday to consider not only mortality but fertility, as well as birth control measures (or lack thereof), as all these spirit visitors make their rounds.  If there’s someone special in the Summerland you’d like to welcome back as a new life, this is a propitious time to issue your invitation.  If you’d rather not accommodate a spirit aiming to reincarnate, well, use some care.

“I lay down all golden in time, and woke up vanishing…”

Though both Mabon and Samhain deal with themes of mortality, neither is simply a time of gloom and mourning.  Worldwide and in every tradition, there are Goddesses and Gods waiting on the other side to welcome us to Their lands at the end of our earthly sojourn.  The veil is thin now.  We visit with those who have gone before, honor their memories, reconnoiter for our own future travels, welcome those new little ones who have chosen to return among us.  And we savor the forms we inhabit, vanishing but yet-golden.  In the midst of autumn’s decay, life is as sweet as a late apple, as fragrant and bright as the lingering marigolds, as pointed as a chill breeze nipping a bright-mooned night.


  • Build altars to remember, grieve and honor our deceased
  • Share the stories of those we’re remembering
  • Feast and set out a plate for the spirits – use their favorite foods
  • Life goes on: Acknowledge the preceding year’s births, welcome new arrivals


Quote: “Sweet Bird,” Joni Mitchell

A good resource: Chloe Sayer and Elizabeth Carmichael, The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, (University of Texas, Austin in association with the British Museum: Austin, 1991).  Muy gracias to Bob Luna for his generous assistance.

The lower photograph is of our Pirate gallery altar to mark the passing of my nephew Tom McKeever  in 2007, created by his mother, brother and me.