The people in these pictures are five generations of my maternal family line (my mother is generation six and I’m generation seven). I was taught from diapers that remembering where we came from and honoring the spirits of our ancestors was very important. For that reason, ancestor remembrances are the most sacred part of the Samhain period of the year for my family and me.
As I wrote in my previous post, The Myths and Truth of Samhain: I remember being seven and I’d have to listen to stories about relatives I never met while putting on a ballerina tutu to go trick-or-treating with my friends. At the time, I had trouble understanding why dusty photos of long-dead relatives appeared on my grandmother’s dresser amid candles every autumn and winter. Now I recognize it for what it was – an altar. We came from Irish people who held onto the old ways and (and later mixed them with Christian ways, mostly for show). It all got passed to me too, a little seven-year-old girl putting on a tutu on Halloween and wondering why my grandmother was drilling separation of cultures into my head.
Changing my altar to focus on deceased friends and family is one of my main points of focus at Samhain. It’s fairly simple to dress up an existing altar for the different periods of the pagan year. Also, it should be noted that Samhain goes throughout the month of November (the festival itself is just sundown to sundown from October 31 to November 1). In other words, keep your Samhain altar up until you’re ready to switch to Yule decorations. I usually assemble around October 27 and then I wait until after Thanksgiving to dismantle.
Just for personal aesthetics that represent the season, I get a couple of little pumpkins and pomegranates from the grocery store or farmer’s market. I gather fallen leaves from my yard to scatter around my altar table. Buying the fake stuff doesn’t sit well with me. I need to use things that will decay on their own, not create more landfill, but watch out for bugs when you bring natural decorations indoors.
If you can get it without trespassing, put an offering bowl of graveyard dirt in the spot on your altar where you represent the earth. The magick is even more powerful if the graveyard dirt comes from the graves of your ancestors. Always ask permission and wait for a sign before you take the dirt. Some spirits don’t like people touching their graves. They’ll give you a sign if the answer is no. Always leave an offering of fruit or flowers in exchange for the dirt too. Graveyard dirt will be used in a ritual on the feast of Samhain.
I also change my candles to orange, dark red, black, etc., for the season if I have those colors on hand. I prefer tapers because they look elegant to me and they’re usually too tall for my cat to act on his fire curiosity. Otherwise I just keep my regular gold and silver candles for the moon and sun. Sometimes I only use gold candles at Samhain in my effort to symbolically provide warmth and light during the cold, dark half of the year. I also use one white candle per spirit I’m honoring. If you don’t have a specific number, just use whatever number you please, or create an exalted focal point with a larger pillar candle to represent all of your spirits.
If you respond to scents like I do, use warm spices as opposed to florals and fruits. Remember we’re entering the cold, dark half of the year. Our ancestors didn’t have access to mail order flowers from tropical places. When in doubt, think of baking, spices, hearthfires, smoked meats, etc., when choosing your incense and resin (unless a specific ritual calls for a specific mixture).
Also, you may also put photographs of your loved ones on the altar along with personal items they owned if you have any. This is an important part of my Samhain altar. Since I lost my grandmother in July, it’s the most recent death, and my tradition dictates that she gets the position of honor this year. I keep candles lit each night for Samhain season to honor my loved ones who are no longer living in the physical.
Don’t forget your deities if you have them too. Leave offerings of autumn flowers like chrysanthemums and marigolds, and autumn foods like breads and gourds, thanking them for working with you during the past year and asking for help in succeeding in the year to come.