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Summer's End: Traditions of Samhain

When you picture Samhain traditions, what comes to mind?

An ancestor altar, where you can pray to the souls of your departed? Or similarly, hosting a silent, or "dumb" supper, where you sit silently with your fellows, living and dead, to acknowledge their presence as the veil thins.

Or maybe it is taking out the pumpkin and carving a face into it, lighting the candle, and trusting the magick of a dying pumpkin tothe unwanted dead and more mischievous spirits away. This tradition, brought to America by Irish Immigrants in the 1800s, came from Irish Folklore and the myth of Stingy Jack, carrying his turnip lantern through the world, while he wanders forever, unable to cross into Heaven or Hell.

Besides Stingy Jack, many other fae creatures and powers travel the world by night during the dark time of year. In the Germanic Tradition, Frau Holde leads the Wild Hunt on its mystical journey, while in Ireland and Britain, people gave offerings to the fairies so they might leave their homes and livestock alone through the winter. A shapechanger named Pukah came around to take these offerings, as did other fae, like the headless Lady Gwyn and her black pig.

All of these powers had to be appeased, because the risks of winter were very real to people living before the convenience of grocery stores and electric lights and central heating. In many ways the Fair Folk traveling through at Samhain represented and personified the threat of Winter, while the Silent Suppers and family offerings were a way of asking the ancestors for aid and guidance to carry the family through the winter.

Tlachtga, in Ireland, was the home of the great fire festival. Tara also was associated with the holiday, but Tlachtga was the primary fire. Its light formed a public celebration, proclaiming that all would be well in the world, while the hearth fires were lit to provide light and comfort for the home.

Divination at Samhain can be a risky business. It is said that you might see those who will die in the coming year, but one can also see ones own impending death, so it should be approached with caution. With so many of the Dead wandering about, it is safe to assume that you will find both unfriendly and unfriendly spirits while you wander across the veils of space and time. So any divination or spellwork done on Samhain night should be done with extreme caution, but the end results can be very powerful indeed.

As modern Pagans, it is important for us to learn about and honor these traditions. Pour a bowl of oats out for the horses of the Wild Hunt and the Fair Folk on Samhain night, light the candles and graze at a Silent Supper, and carve a pumpkin for the occasion. While the partying and fun of Halloween is a great gathering for Pagans and non-Pagans alike, it is important that we remember the somber side of one of our most critical holidays.

Summer Ends, after all, when the fires of Samhain are lit. How will you be celebrating your Samhain this year?

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