Posts Tagged ‘Samhain’

On Saturday night, Northern Rivers Protogrove gathered to celebrate Samhain and honor the Ancestors. We decided to have the rite indoors as the rain and cold were quite intense. We are aiming to be more family-friendly and we wanted the little ones to be safe and comfortable.  I used to look down my nose at “fair weather Pagans,” but my tune is changing.  I’m all for communing with Nature in the rain and snow, and there’s definitely a time and place for that, but when you practice a tribal religion, the needs of the many must come first.  Although
I missed the stone circle, we set up a beautiful altar inside the Kripalu Yoga Center.

We called to An Morrigan as the gatekeeper. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

We also set up a special shrine for the visiting Ancestors.  Guests brought photographs, skulls, and other mementos.  I happened to see an announcement that this Samhain marked ADF’s 30th year, so I grabbed the copy of Oak Leaves that eulogizes our late founder, Isaac Bonewits.  He’s definitely an ancestor of the heart for many an ADF grove and protogrove!

We made offerings to the Ancestors and made a special temporary shrine for them. Here you see just one of many mementos brought – a photo of ADF’s late founder, Isaac Bonewits. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

My friend Tara lead the rite and she did a fantastic job.  She even made some wonderful favors for guests in the form of little skulls painted on stones she gathered from a lake.  This Samhain Northern Rivers Protogrove met another milestone in that we have been having our High Day rituals at the Kripalu Yoga and Wellness Center for an entire year!  It’s been a beautiful partnership and I’m so grateful for their hospitality.  Between the growth in ritual attendees and the outstanding participation and leadership of fellow members, I am so proud of us.  On a personal note, since I wasn’t leading the rite, I took the opportunity to write and memorize an invocation to the Ancestors.  I was told I did a wonderful job, and people were moved by my delivery.  It’s always good to hear!  My favorite part of every Samhain, however, is the spiritual and emotional release that comes with honoring our beloved dead and accepting the beauty and inevitably of death as well as the promise of life’s renewal.

Here’s to a new liturgical year full of new and wonderful developments with Northern Rivers Protogrove!

We paid special reverence to the new Ancestors, those who passed away this year. Using a tradition I learned from Muin Mound Grove, everyone announced the name of a new Ancestor while placing a clove into an apple. We invited them to “come to the light” so that they could join the other Ancestors and cross over to the Otherworld. As always, it was very moving. Photo, Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

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2013 pumpkins

Carved pumpkins and turnips scare away the negative and light the way for our beloved dead. Photo by Weretoad, 2013.

Photo Oct 31, 5 16 10 PM

Hospitality for the Ancestors and offerings from our meal. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

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I keep seeing or hearing people discuss how they feel Samhain and/or  Halloween should be celebrated.  Some say it’s too scary; others that it isn’t scary enough.  Some call for more reverence for the ancestors; others feel the holiday has become too somber in Pagan culture.  Those later folk embrace the carnival nature that secular Halloween has come to embody.  And of course, there are those who turn their nose up at modern Halloween because it’s too disrespectful to the cultures it came from and  too materialistic.

Honestly, I find truth in all of those thoughts.  Here are my thoughts, but know they are merely my thoughts and not my recipe for Samhain goodness that you must follow or else!

Halloween can be too scary.  I remember running out of haunted houses when I was younger and I still dislike most horror films.  And I enjoy more whimsical costumes myself.  Fairies, historical figures, animals…

Halloween, and Samhain especially, can be too watered down.  These traditions originate from the Celts, and it wasn’t just the ancestors who could cross over the veil – it was all of the sidhe realm! Every fairy, goblin, and bump-in-the-night came out.  Not all fairies are nice happy things as some modern folk seem to think.  That said, not all ancestors are nice either!  Nobody wants the unhappy ancestors to visit…  And yet, the belief in these Otherworld denizens fueled many of our traditions.  Some have suggested that carving turnips or pumpkins into faces could scare away nasty boos.  Dressing up in costumes is believed to confuse spirits.  People who value and respect the sprits and the Otherworld should feel a sense of fear about Samhain.  It adds to the fun but, also, it is good practice to be careful.  I know, this time of year, I often look over my shoulder in case the Pooka is about…

There should be more reverence for the ancestors on Samhain.  They are part of the reason for the season, if I may borrow that phrase.  To completely ignore them feels disrespectful to me.  In my belief system, the ancestors come back to visit us and hospitality – towards living and dead – is incredibly important. (At the same time, to only pay them attention on Samhain is equally disrespectful in my point of view).  

Samhain can be too somber, and that can make the holiday almost unbearable for some which is a shame when it’s such a sacred time.  Sarah Lawless found a way to embrace the carnival nature of the day while also honoring the spookiness and the dead.  And it shouldn’t be all sadness, no matter how scary and painful death can be.  Joy and fun are the ways we come to terms with death. We remember the good times.  Pagan rituals that don’t allow anyone to dress up feel backwards to me.  Dr. Jenny Butler recently did an interview on Transceltic and explained many of the fun Samhain traditions, including dressing up in costume on this day. “It is a playful time,” she says, “when it is acceptable to have a subversive appearance, so people can chose to dress as they wish, whether that is as something scary or outlandish.”  Trust me, it’s possible to dress in a costume and still feel the fullness of the event.  Although I agree that some costume choices are much more appropriate for ritual settings than others!  

People have lost touch with Halloween’s roots.  Many probably wouldn’t care because they celebrate the secular holiday, and that is fine and well.  However, many who embrace Paganism in one of its forms can also forget.  It’s a Celtic holiday.  It was a time to honor the Ancestors, light bonfires, and engage with the Otherworld.  We can get lost in the plastic world of imported costume accessories, racist costume stereotypes, and sugar highs without regard to human dignity, Nature Spirits, of the Earth Mother herself.

So what’s a Gaelic polytheist ditzy Druid in modern America to do?

I find harmony in the blend of Halloween and Samhain.  

At least, that’s what I try to do.

Halloween can be too scary.  Clowns, for example, are horribly frightening to me.  I had a negative experience with one as a child and it left an imprint.  However, I can’t try to censor Halloween and tell others not to dress as clowns any more than I can tell someone not to dress as other peoples’ worst nightmares*.  I can’t stomach most horror films because they are too gory.  I do, however, adore a good ghost story.  Halloween should be a little scary.  It’s in its DNA!  As they say in The Nightmare Before Christmas, “life’s no fun without a good scare.”  And it’s true.  Sometimes it reminds us what is so precious about life.  And that’s why it shouldn’t be all scary.  We care tenderly for our beloved dead, for one, and should create a home that is welcoming and warm for them.  Bring out the good table settings!  And if some people would rather dress as fuzzy rabbits or cute princesses – why not?!  Let people have fun on their own terms because, as discussed above, there’s no set costume in Samhain tradition!  Get in touch with your inner bard and let your costume tell the story you want!

I have great reverence for the Ancestors, and I could honestly be a lot better about honoring them all year, but I do try.  Samhain is a special day, though, when it is believed our beloved dead can return to us.  I feel them as the veil thins.  They are in my thoughts, my dreams, and sometimes in the corner of my eye.  It is not depressing to me, but it feels good to know they want to come see me, check on me, and maybe bestow some kind of blessing.  I know I would want to do the same for my loved ones after death.  Why not set out a nice spread and be hospitable about it?  Why not show that respect while having a good time with the living?

And it needn’t be somber.  My experience with ADFers has taught me how to find a good balance between the deep reverence and joviality.  Samhain, more than any other High Day, moves me in a way that is almost ineffable.  It is one of the few rites where I seem to laugh and cry every time.  Even if I haven’t lost someone that year, the sorrow from others impacts me deeply.  Again, it reminds me just how precious life and our time with other loved ones is.  And so we laugh as well because we remember those good times and enjoy new ones with those around us.  To me, you must have both to fully experience Samhain’s mystery.  

Finally, in my household, Samhain is deeply Celtic.  The holiday came from Celtic cultures, Halloween traditions were brought over by Irish immigrants, and those are deeply respected under my roof.  If you should stop by, expect to hear some Irish music playing.  Expect to see carved turnips.  If you come to a Northern River’s ritual on Samhain, expect to see us honoring the ancestors as well as the Tuatha de Dannan.  In my opinion, to have a ritual with any other cultural focus but Celtic (a specific culture or pan if you must), is just nonsensical since the holiday has Celtic roots and, chances are, the other culture you wish to honor already has a holiday with similar traditions.  If you must celebrate using different cultural symbols, why not just research that culture and use the name they would have instead of one originating from Celtic languages?  And although I will be embracing the Celtic traditions to the best of my ability, I’m still a modern American of mixed cultural background.  You will hear modern Halloween songs playing along with the traditional and folk.  You’ll see big orange and white pumpkins along with the turnips.  You’ll see me handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, although, this year, I’m doing my best to give out more eco-friendly varieties**.

But that is just in my sphere of influence!  

If I visit your household or your spiritual circle and find you doing differently than I, I will respect you as a human being.  I understand we aren’t all cut from the same spiritual or cultural cloth.  I know some of us find value and purpose in celebrating differently.  It’s not my place to throw my weight around. Several years ago, I tried to argue with folks who wanted to do a completely Hellenic rite while calling it Samhain and it didn’t end well.  I’ve grown up since then and realize that is not the way to conduct myself.  I may not do things the same way or agree with you, but I would rather work on finding my own harmony with Samhain than insist on how you should find yours.  

On that note, no matter how you celebrate, I hope you are just as excited to celebrate Samhain!  Wishing you a blessed Samhain my lovely readers!

* There is, of course, a time and place for some costumes.  We all have our boundaries and we must respect the wishes of hosts and hostesses.  In other words, if you show up to my home as a clown, I may punch you in the face! :P

** Even if you can’t afford organic candies, at least try to avoid chocolate that isn’t fair-trade.  Human dignity and preserving the world’s biodiversity are worth more to me than an affordable chocolate fix!

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Some of you may remember that I have an ancestor from Ireland buried right here in Watertown. I try to visit with an offering each Samhain season. This year felt particularly important because of my late grandfather who worked so hard to find and preserve her grave. I now honor both through this tradition.


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What a cute (and kid-friendly!) project!  I can envision folks making a new ghost each Samhain to represent a loved one who has passed away.  It could also be a wonderful way to decorate an ancestral altar in October and November.

DIY Finger-Knit Ghost Garland | Pretty Prudent.

Have fun!

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New Year Blessing

Yesterday, my husband and I prepared for a home blessing ritual I came up with for the New Year.  We cleaned for the occasion as well as we could.  I am sad to admit we were not able to move things around in the art room, so my altar remains in a state of flux, albeit a functional flux.  The piles of snow outside, and my inability to lift heavy objects right now, means that we have to wait on phase two of “operation return my altar to the art room and convert the bedroom nook into a nursery.”  However, the bedroom is the cleanest it’s been for months.  We’re all caught up with laundry, I gave the carpet a thorough vacuuming, we bagged old clothes for donations, and my husband removed a cabinet that’s been sitting in the middle of the floor for a month since we started moving furniture around.  It had become an obstacle for me at night during my frequent bathroom visits, and it sat near my altar.  Piled with laundry, it added to a sense of disorder.  Well, that’s taken care of and I feel it’s very symbolic indeed!  It’s said that what occurs as the old year turns to the new will set the tone for what’s to follow.  And while our modern calendar is man-made, and this can be said of any New Year celebration*, it’s difficult to deny the power of such a sentiment.  It’s a type of sympathetic magic, an internal magic.  I very much hope that our little one comes into a clean world and that we have few to no obstacles in 2013!

The family altar set up for our New Year blessing ritual.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.

After the sun set, and before heading to a friend’s New Year’s Eve party, we prepared for the home blessing.  As you know, I’m not using incense indoors during my pregnancy.  It’s common for people performing house blessings to smudge away negativity.  I decided to make an herbal infusion.  I selected herbs with symbolic or literal qualities that I desired for the coming year.  I poured hot water over them, added a few drops of lavender oil for peace, and some vinegar for purification.   We made offerings to the Kindreds for all the blessings of 2012, sprinkled the infusion around the house while chanting our prayer**, then did a reading for the New Year using the Druid Animal Oracle.  The omens were quite good, and we left for the party pleased.

We ended 2012 with friends, blessed in so many ways, and in pretty good health.  We begin 2013 the same way.  Here’s to a wonderful New Year!  Go make the most of it!


*Samhain, the traditional Druidic New Year, came at such a busy time.  We observed the holiday but did not do much to mark the New Year.  It was very important for me to take the opportunity on this secular occasion.

** We said a very simple prayer inspired by some of Ian Corrigan’s work, but if you would like something more poetic and historic, Woden’s Wandering Witch shared a Pagan rewrite of a New Year’s prayer from Carmina Gadelica.

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Quiet Time

I think I’ve entered a short quiet period.  I’m feeling more introspective and reflective.

Perhaps it’s the lunar phase.  Maybe I’m extra guarded because Mercury is still in retrograde.  Or perhaps it’s that post Samhain calm before the storm of the winter holidays.

It’s also because I’ve been extra sleepy lately.

My free time has been spent knitting and sewing winter Solstice gifts.  I meditate and go for nature walks when I can.  I’m thoughtfully choosing and preparing my food with extra care.  I do so enjoy the seasonal offerings – especially the squash.  So earthy and comforting!

There are a lot of changes happening right now – both in nature and my life.  I will talk about them when the time is right.  For now, I’m looking inward and enjoying some me-time.

Blessings to you during this new moon.  May it bring you the quiet time you need.

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We’re very excited to have access to a fire pit and the ability to use it! Weretoad was thrilled to be the fire keeper and took this wonderful photo. 2012.

Last night, the North Country Druidic Study Group gathered for its second ever ritual – Samhain!  Although a few days after the calendrical holiday, my Druidic tradition believes that the veil remains thin for some time.  Personally, I view it like the lunar phases.  Samhain is when it is at its peak, while the days before and after are waxing or waning towards that point.  With that in mind, we gathered at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Adams, NY.  As I discussed before, it’s absolutely perfect for our group.  We have access to a stone circle with a fire pit that we can use!   In addition, we can use their indoor facilities for our potluck.  Their hospitality has been such a gift and I pray we made a good impression. We’ve already been welcomed back for future gatherings so I have a good feeling that this is the start of a good relationship!

As you can see, the stone circle is beautiful! Photo by Weretoad, 2012.

The ritual went well and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  I grow in confidence each time I lead one.  The omens I drew, which, like Muin Mound, I interpret as the lessons and blessings we will receive from the Kindreds this quarter, were very positive and spoke of staying strong and connected to ourselves, our families, and the Kindreds over the harsh winter.  The chanting remains a challenge.  I’m keeping things simple and introducing a chant at a time.  I goofed on the closing chant, but live and learn, right?

Winter was definitely in the air, emphasizing this time as the beginning of the dark half of the year.  We actually saw snow on our way to the ritual!  The trees, compared to the shot of the stone circle above (which was taken in October) are now bare and skeletal.  For at least one member, the mysteries of death suddenly made sense based on Nature’s lessons.

Our ancestral altar complete with mementos and offerings. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.

After the rite, we made our way into the warmth of the Yoga Center for our feast.  We had quite a spread and welcomed our Ancestors to our revels!  The group is growing closer and bonding over our interests, our love of nature, and our call to Druidism.  We chatted with folks from the Yoga Center about meditation, energy work, intuition, and daily devotionals.  It was a wonderful evening and I know everyone is excitedly looking forward to the Winter Solstice!  The wheel turns and we move and grow with it.

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First of all, I’m very excited to announce that the North Country Druidic Study Group has been welcomed to perform our High Day rituals at the Kripalu Yoga Center here in Northern NY!  They have a lovely little stone circle with a fire pit that is just perfect for us.  What’s more, they have an indoor facility with heat, electricity, bathrooms, tables, chairs, and a kitchen!  As I’ve told everyone, I like to perform rites outside surrounded by Nature and in the elements, but I understand the importance of having indoor space, especially for a group of people.  Individuals can suddenly feel ill, babies can become too cold, and people want to feast in comfort come winter.  Access to this lovely, sacred space comes as a particular stroke of good fortune in a month that has been largely stressful and disappointing in other life areas. Of course, it hasn’t happened without much effort – phone tag, many messages over FB, letters, meetings, and much explanation.  I’m very grateful to the Yoga Center’s board, in particular Kimberly Ward, who has been communicative and supportive since the beginning, and Steve Williams, who has been very helpful and welcoming over the phone.  I pray this is the start to a wonderful, positive partnership!

Of course, being a facility that has a vast lawn to maintain, electricity, heat, water, etc…  It should not be a surprise that the group will have to pay a little to utilize this space.  This brings up the question about money.  Ah, that necessary evil that permeates our life…

Like others in the group, I rent an apartment lacking a private lawn or sufficient space for large group rituals.  What’s more, since we are aiming to become an ADF grove, our rituals must be open to the public and accessible, yet we also want more privacy than a park can offer.  Although there are many people in ADF comfortable with such a high level of hospitality and open their home to complete strangers, I’m on the more protective side of my property and, especially, pets.  There are other members who have children and I would be the same way.  Renting a ritual space at an established property just makes sense.  We aren’t alone in the ADF community.  As it turns out, a great many groves and protogroves rely on the hospitality of spiritual and community centers – UU Churches, libraries, camping lodges,  and even Masonic temples.  Because of this need for space, other groups also deal with the annoyance of money.

As the study group matures and moves towards our first anniversary in the summer, acquiring access to this space has solidified our desire to move forward with becoming an actual grove.  We will not stagnate over the winter without a good place for ritual!  Yet we are suddenly faced with business.  Who pays for this space? Will a request for donations be enough? Should we start collecting dues?  Who pays the dues? What constitutes a member of the study group?

Most people probably recognize that we’re moving into bylaws territory.  Even though protogroves aren’t required to have any, it seems like something is necessary when money comes into the equation. I’m no stranger to bylaws.  Muin Mound Grove has some that we’re currently in the process of reviewing.  The Mohawk Valley Pagan Network I used to belong to had them.  I was actually involved in the process of writing them!  Like money, bylaws are a necessary evil.  It is unfortunate that spiritual communities have to have these rules, but due to the imperfect and sometimes unpredictable nature of humanity, rules are a form of protection.  The key is not letting the rules take over the function of the group, and being open about their necessity and formation.  I’m hopeful that people who were very interested and involved before don’t become discouraged by this development.

I’ve been spending some time looking over other grove bylaws for ideas.  The study group’s second business meeting is tonight and I plan to start at least discussing some of the issues at hand.  The group is growing up.


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Our turnips for Samhain this year!  Photo by Weretoad, 2012.

Carved pumpkins are a ubiquitous tradition here in America.  It’s no wonder really – pumpkins have been growing here for generations!  In Ireland, turnips were mostly used as Samhain decorations.  There’s not a lot of evidence that this is an ancient practice.  Writings on the subject of ancient Samhain in general are actually surprisingly scarce.  Much of what we know is based on Medieval manuscripts, the modern Catholic festival of All Hallows Eve, and conjecture.  There are several theories about the purpose of the Jack-o-Lantern.  Much of it seems to revolve around protecting a home from the more nasty spirits that are wandering this realm – both fairies, a goblin-like creature called the Puca, and violent, angry dead.  Mara Freeman suggest it may have something to do with “the early Celts’ veneration of the head, which they considered the seat of the soul” (312).  This tradition came to America thanks to the Irish immigrants who, despite moving to a new land, could not give up their favorite holiday customs.  (It’s actually quite amazing how much of an impact Irish immigrants have had on America!)  Turnips were, of course, set aside for the pumpkin.  In reality, it’s much easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip.  What’s more, they grow to large sizes so designs can become quite complex and visible from far away!

Although Weretoad and I continue to carve pumpkins each year, turnips entered our tradition a few Samhains ago.  It was important to me to try my hand at this traditional practice and recall the old customs of my Irish ancestors.    I encourage my readers to give it a try as well!

Choose some large turnips that sit on a flat surface.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.
Turnips are tough root vegetables so you’ll need a sharp knife to cut the top off.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.


The trickiest part by far is scooping out the insides.  Indeed, the density of turnips is what keeps most people from attempting this at all!  Although the vegetable matter is tougher than a pumpkin, carving a turnip only requires a little extra elbow grease.  The easiest way to do it is to use a sturdy, thick spoon that has no danger of bending.  Scoop it out bit by bit!  Photo by Weretoad, 2012.
Don’t forget to scoop some of the lid.  Even large turnips are still small compared to most pumpkins.  A tea light can quickly burn the turnip lid so you want to try your best to prevent that.  Also note the tub in the background.  Not wanting to be wasteful, we kept the turnip guts to add to a dinner.  They mix well with mashed potatoes.

Finally, use a small but sharp knife to carve a face or other design into your turnip.  I’ve found that traditional skull designs work well.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.


Each one has its own personality!  Photo by Weretoad, 2012.

As always, don’t leave your turnip lanterns unattended unless sing LED lights.  Once more, due to their small size, these turnips can cook from the inside!  I find they work best lit for small periods of time – during your Samhain ritual or dinner, for example.   Happy carving!


Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  Harper Collins, San Francisco: 2001.

Hutton, Ronald.  The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.  Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1996.


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