illustrated by liz riccardi

Simple Ways to Celebrate Samhain

it’s the witches’ new year, you know.

by christie craft

Long before jack-o'-lanterns, coordinated #girlgang costumes, and Netflix-and-chill-a-thons of our fave horror masterpieces, the sugary, goth holiday wore a different mask entirely. To ancient people of the Northern Hemisphere, Halloween, or Samhain (pronounced “Sa-wain”), as it was once called by the Celts, marked the official end of summer and the beginning of winter, as well as the start of a new year. The last harvest of the year, the Samhain season—roughly, the period when the Sun is in the constellation Scorpio—was an anxious time of preparation to ensure survival through winter and an abundant farming season come spring.

While many of these themes are still seen in the fall season today (bobbing for apples, carving pumpkins, nesting), the ancients knew that there was something sinister lurking below the surface. Indeed, the earth dies and as summer ends, the underworld comes alive. Thus, Samhain was also a time to honor death in its power, beauty, and inevitability. Samhain marked a period when the “veil” separating the world of the living from the dead was said to be at its thinnest, allowing spirits to not only reach out to the living, but also roam the earth. Appeasing and honoring spirits, which later morphed into trick-or-treating and Dia de los Muertos celebrations, were spiritual priorities.

Though modern society seems lightyears away from the agricultural lifestyle of our human ancestors, it is still possible to honor this sacred time of death and connect with Mother Earth's rhythms, whether you live in a shoebox apartment or that dope cottage from Hocus Pocus. Ahead, nine simple ways to get in touch with your inner witch goddess (or Stevie Nicks) and celebrate the natural world’s retirement into death.

One of the cardinal features of the Samhain season is honoring the death cycle and paying homage to those who have transitioned into the unknown, placing emphasis on loved ones we've lost in the last year. Remember the people who helped shape who you are today—including friends, family members, pets, and loved ones who have passed away—by setting up an altar (or “shrine”) dedicated to their memory.

Altars can be as big and bold or as small and subtle as you please, just be sure to pick a space that won’t be disturbed—and clutter is a huge no-no. A whole table or shelf is excellent, but you can set up tiny altars almost anywhere, like on the corner of your dresser or desk. Vignette photographs, knickknacks, and mementos to represent your deceased loved ones and heritage, and add crystals, flowers or plants, and candles or incense for an extra-energetic touch. Including “offerings” of your loved ones' favorites—like a shot glass of your grandfather’s favorite whiskey or your childhood dog’s ball—is especially thoughtful.

Take time out of your day to stop and reflect on those who have gone before you into the void, thanking them and expressing gratitude. After all, you wouldn’t be here without them. 

Remember: You can honor whomever you like on your altar, so long as they’re dead, including celebrities, artists, cancelled television series, and more.

Samhain not only honors the literal dead, but also the life-death-rebirth cycle evident in the Earth’s seasons. There’s no better way to honor this than by bringing a little bit of nature indoors with some edible greenery. (For those who are botanically challenged: Don’t worry—you don’t actually have to have a supernatural green thumb to have a successful herb garden. Keep it simple.)

The easiest herbs to grow indoors are basil, rosemary, garlic, and mint varieties, but most herb plants are fairly hearty and can be easily nurtured in container gardens. Visit your local nursery or hardware store’s garden center this time of year, and you’re bound to find a decent selection of pre-germinated plants, as well as seeds and garlic bulbs, which absolutely love being planted around Samhain. Pick your favorites, snag a small bag of potting soil, several cute pots (I prefer terracotta pots because of their uncanny moisture retention), and get planting. Choose a sunny, clutter-free spot in your home or kitchen, water once a week (or when the soil feels dry), and enjoy watching life burst through the dark, cold, dead months.

Green-Thumb Bonus: Houseplant enthusiasts will have the best luck clipping and propagating “babies” from their brood in fall, as well. Just snip off a healthy stalk or bud, let it soak in water until a root tail forms, then plant in a pot or container. Pro-tip: Rooted houseplants make excellent gifts come holiday season. (You’re welcome.)

Absolutely everyone with a Netflix account and a penchant for the macabre knows the glamouring magick scenes from cult classic The Craft. Though supernaturally switching up your eye color sans contact lenses and morphing into the apple of your crush’s eye for the purposes of deadly seduction are, frankly, not actual things in the practice of the Craft, glamouring is absolutely real.

Glamouring is all about creating illusion and conjuring energy to enhance or change your outward appearance and others’ surface perceptions of you. Sometimes, glamour magick can be helpful for blending into crowds and surviving certain social situations, but most powerfully, it can inject your self-image and confidence with some serious sparkle. Samhain is the Witches’ New Year—a time to clear away the old, weak, and dying to make room for fresh, new growth. New year, new witch.

A simple way to add magick to the mundane is by starting your day with a glamouring chant or affirmation. First, think of a few positive words for your affirmation focused on praising yourself (my personal favorite is, “I am the baddest witch from Salem to New Orleans”—you can get extremely creative here). As you go through your morning routine, look at your reflection in the mirror and repeat your glamouring affirmation as much as necessary to pump you up. This powerful exercise raises energy—literally—that can stay with you the entire day. 

Take your glamouring skills to the next level by adding a personal ritual—like a weekly home facial—or a talisman. For a beauty ritual, simply quiet your mind, declare your intentions (“For porcelain skin that would make Morticia melt”), and get to it. Talismans, which can be anything from jewelry to a lucky coin, are charged similarly by holding the object in your hands and concentrating on your intention. Lipstick is a perfect glamour talisman. Simply choose your favorite fall hue and declare your intention (“For a mouth that slays my haters and a spellbinding pout that repels fuccbois,” for example). Every time you swipe on that shade, you’ll be reminded of your power—and so will everyone else. 

Way, way back in prehistoric Europe, when the holiday we now know as Halloween was in diapers as the Celtic harvest festival Samhain, villages and the countryside were set aglow with bonfires as the sun set on the eve of October 31, marking the formal end to summer and the beginning of winter. These ancient fires’ purposes were multiple: One, to fend off marauding evil spirits, and two: To clear away dead debris from last year’s crops for a new year of planting come spring. Weak and sick livestock were sent to slaughter and burned in the fires along with what was cleared from the field as offerings to the gods and goddesses, both thanking the deities for another year of harvest and ensuring an abundant next season.

Unless you live somewhere with ample outdoor space and the fire codes to match, bonfires are not the most practical way to ring in the Witches’ New Year. A simple, non-life-threatening way to keep the Samhain fires burning is with candles and controlled fires, either outdoors (if you’re lucky) or in a fire-safe area like your kitchen sink or bathroom. All you need is a white or black candle—depending on your mood; white if you’re welcoming new beginnings, black if you’re feeling the banishing vibe—and a laundry list of things to let go of. 

Start by cleaning out your home space, including closets, purses, bags, drawers, and any other nooks and crannies that gather clutter. Collect anything that reminds you of negativity that you’ve experienced in the past year (yes, obviously this applies to exes’ photos and unclaimed items). Once you have gathered your “burn pile,” sit quietly with a pen and paper and free write about what you want to let go this year, visualizing the positive changes you’d like to see. Next, in a fire-safe area or outdoors, light your candle and read aloud what you’ve written, asking the Goddess and the Horned God (or honestly, whomever you worship) to clear space for new growth, protection, and abundance, while simultaneously thanking your deities and spirit guides for the positive experiences and developments of the past year. Now, carefully burn the paper. The “burn pile” can be tossed out in the trash, never to return (seriously, don’t keep those items in your home any longer after this ritual). If you do have an outdoor fire pit, you can easily burn your pile of negatively charged items. Invite your squad—er, coven—to bring their own burn piles and lists over for hot cider and a witchy bitchfest. 

While most of us turn inward as autumn’s chill creeps in, it’s important to remember those who aren’t as fortunate. Back in the day, fall’s final approach was a threat; winter is just around the corner, and if you weren’t prepared with ample food and a warm shelter, there was a very real possibility that you wouldn’t live to see spring.

These dangers still exist today for the homeless and underprivileged, and October and November are some of the busiest months for shelters, safe houses, food drives, and charity kitchens. Show your gratitude for everything you have to keep yourself safe, comfortable, and happy through the icy winter months by donating food, coats, warm clothing, and your time to your local homeless and women’s shelters. Not only are you doing good in a world that badly needs generosity, you’re also setting yourself up for an excellent helping of good karma in return. You never know when you will need a helping hand. 

Visit One Warm Coat to find shelters and resources in your community. 

Whether or not you have loved ones or family members interned, cemeteries can be peaceful, beautiful green spaces and fascinating monuments to the way cultures past and present handled death and dying. Taking a walk though your local boneyard on a crisp, autumn day can be just what the witchdoctor ordered to clear cobwebs of stress and observe the changing season while stretching your legs and getting in your last slivers of vitamin D. Plus, if you do have family or friends eternally chilling there, you can craft a headstone rubbing or tracing with a crayon or graphite pencil and a piece of paper. Headstone etchings make beautiful keepsakes and can also be included in your ancestor altar.

Some cemeteries are so huge—like historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which offers guided tours—you can even make a day of it and pack a picnic lunch. Think hanging out in graveyards is creepy? Think again: The restful bastions of modern cemeteries were originally designed by—who else but—the death-loving Victorians to also serve as public parks. And don’t worry about freaking out mortuary staff; most folks who enter the field are largely of the death-positive set and won’t mind your presence one bit. Simply follow the ground rules and remain respectful of other visitors as well as the dead.  

Many historic cemeteries need volunteers to help clean and green overgrown monuments and headstones. Community groups often come together during the Samhain season to honor the dead with a headstone-cleaning outing, like the one goth-inspired globetrotters Creepy Girl Travels organized to spruce up Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery in Minneapolis this fall. Contact your local cemetery to organize something similar. 

No, I’m not talking about rehashing angst-driven dinner table insults from your tween years. What I’m talking about is dining with the dead.

Though many of us feel connected to their deceased loved ones year round, Samhain season is one of the two times out of the year when the “veil” separating the living from the dead is thought to wane, becoming more fragile and flexible—especially when it comes to communing with those who’ve passed on. So, why not take advantage of this magical time and invite your sweet, long-dead grandma over for a hot meal?

Also called “silent suppers,” dumb suppers are simply the ritual of preparing and serving food—real, actual human food, not ectoplasmic ghost food, or whatever—to the dead. What you choose for your menu is entirely up to you, but whipping up the deceased’s favorite dishes or cultural cuisines that represent your heritage (my brother, who passed away two years ago, loves a mean fettuccini Bolognese recipe that my grandmother brought from Italy) is never a bad way to go.

Once you’ve mastered the menu, set your dining space as if you were hosting a sit-down dinner, including table settings for your ghostly guests. You can light candles, add a festive centerpiece, or whatever else strikes your fancy. As you enjoy your meal with your “party,” reflect on your memories and experiences with your lost loved ones. Many view dumb suppers as somber, quiet affairs, but I’ve always used them as an opportunity to speak to my dead out loud, laughing boisterously and retelling family stories. In fact, I can’t think of a Samhain dumb supper that hasn’t gotten rowdy (hello, loud voices obviously pair perfectly with homespun Italian cooking).

Whether you can see (or feel) them or not, they’re there. And they’re appreciative that you remember them.

In many cultures worldwide, the fall is a time traditionally reserved for honoring the dead. The ancient death holiday was repressed and coopted by early Christian clergy, who then turned All Hallow’s Day (November 1) into All Saints Day (or, All Souls Day, if you like). Modern Catholicism and some Christian sects still observe this holiday, and in Spanish-colonized and Latinx cultures the dead are very much remembered alongside the saints between the last week of October and first week of November. 

Dia de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead," falls on November 1 and is nothing short of a colorful, vibrant celebration of the beauty in death, as well as in life. Beyond culturally appropriated Mexican folk art as decor, sugar skulls, and Catholic iconography is a nourishing tradition essential to the human experience. Many multicultural cities and areas with prominent Latinx communities will open the experience to the public with music, dancing, food, and sweets. These celebrations are often held in cemeteries or at Catholic churches, and can often spill out into raucous street festivals.

It’s important to remember that, unless you are a member of an ethnic community that celebrates Dia de los Muertos, you are a visitor within a culture. Photos may be prohibited at Day of the Dead events and rituals. Be respectful during prayers and ceremonies, even if you don’t understand the language spoken. And for Goddess’ sakes, by no means should you paint your face to resemble a Mexican sugar skull. Gag. 

You used to call me on my…ghost phone? Not exactly. Samhain season is considered a very magical time prime for divination and communing with the other side. Before the advent of trick-or-treating, Halloween was the one night out of the year that it was acceptable to dabble in occult practices, like telling fortunes and scrying into fires and bowls of water to discern the future. 

Mistresses and masters of divination can have loads of fun at home, but for the less-psychically inclined set the Halloween season sees a surge in visits to psychics, tarot readers, and mediums. Because otherworldly energies inhabit our mundane plane at Samhain time, visiting a reputable psychic or fortuneteller can be very powerful—especially for spirit communication. Seek out a well-reviewed, professional psychic who comes highly recommended, either by friends or in client testimonials on their official website. Steer clear of shady storefront psychics; if they’re the real deal, he or she will have a professional website, or conduct readings in metaphysical bookstores and occult shops. Grab a few friends or go alone for an intensely personal experience, but be sure to ask if others can be present before dragging in the coven. And as always, take whatever information you receive with a grain of salt; energy is subject to change, and what may be predicted today may not materialize over time if circumstances change.