The creation of Samhain altars derives from the celebration of Samhain. It is the celebration that is the origin of Halloween. Samhain is a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the transition to the darker half of the year (winter). According to the ancient pagans, Samhain took place on the night of October 31st because they believed the dead returned to earth on this night as it marks the time of the year when the veil that separates the living world and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. This allowed spirits of the dead to visit the living. The festival entails great gatherings and feasts while the ancient burial grounds were open, which were seen as portals to the Otherworld. In Celtic mythology, the Otherworld is a supernatural realm of the deities and the dead. As the Otherworld is similar to the parallel universe, it is said to exist alongside our own world, located beyond the edge of earth. It is known that people may reach the Otherworld either by chance or after being invited by one of its residents.
The meaning behind Samhain remains today, to honor the spirits of the dead. There are many rituals associated with Samhain today including feasting, dancing, taking nature walks, and building altars to honor their ancestors.
Nevertheless, at Samhain, many Pagans celebrate the end of the harvest season as well as honoring both their ancestors and the dead. As the barriers between the physical and spiritual world break down during Samhain, it marks the perfect time to honor nature, honor the dead, and honor the cycle of death and rebirth. In order to celebrate Samhain, you can set up your own altar to demonstrate your gratitude for nature and respect towards both your ancestors and spirits of the dead. Follow these steps to create your own Samhain altar:
The first step is to find a sacred space to create your altar. The root of the word “altar” means “high place” which reflects how symbolically sacred and important it is in spiritual practice.
Try to think of a room or place where you’ve been before where you have felt uneasy or unbalanced as soon as you entered it. A sacred space is a space where you can feel safe, at peace, comfortable and free to be our true selves.
Keep in mind that space holds energy and that space IS energy! There is no right or wrong way to create your sacred space, as long as the space you choose feels personal, private and special to you.
It is important to also keep in mind that your altar should be in a space where you will feel at peace and where you won’t be disturbed.
Remember that your altar can be whatever you want it to be. Although we advise picking a spot that is kept away from distractions, like other family members or pets. The altar should be placed in a space that feels safe to you, where you can express both yourself and your spirituality freely without any judgement from others.
The space could be anywhere, a quiet room, your bed, your desk, a cupboard, or even a stool.
Think of any personal items that have meaning to you. This could be anything from a trinket or maybe a significant piece of jewelry given to you from a loved one. This could also include any objects such as a photo or drawing of something that has meaning to you. It is known to bring in the 5 elements to your altar:
Gather meaningful objects and objects representing the five elements and place them on your altar. There are many parts to the altars that people build. Skulls or skeletons are placed on the altar to represent the spirits of the dead.
To symbolize the end of the harvest, they include pumpkins, squash, apples, or other fall crops. Some people even bake loaves of special Samhain bread to be placed on the altar, to “feed” the visiting spirits.
A piece of fabric that came from an ancestor would also be a great addition to your altar. Do you have a quilt or maybe a sweater that a loved one has passed down to you? Or maybe a hand woven table cloth from the lands where your ancestors came from. Using fabric that connects you directly to the ancestors is a powerful reminder of who is being honored and why.
Photos of deceased family members or loved ones are also added. Including a photo is one of the easiest ways to work with ancestral energies. Photos can be of family of blood, chosen family, friends, pets, or anyone that has made a mark on who you are.
With that being said, this practice is not limited to people who you actually have known or have met. If there is an author, actor, athlete, artist or celebrity that you have a passion or love for and they have passed over, consider adding a photograph of them to your Samhain altar as well.
It is also common for people to include images of a specific deity, god, or goddess of whom they worship. Consider adding your chosen photograph to a picture frame to put in your altar. A simple framed picture makes for a beautiful addition to a Samhain altar.
You can include photos other than of a loved one. Include an image of the town where you came from, an ancestral home, an ancient village, your childhood home, your favorite vacation spot, or a favorite family location. If you are unaware of where your ancestors came from, try to do a little digging around and figure out where your ancient ancestors originated from and print out an image or map of that place for your altar.
Relics and mementos are a great addition to your altar. This could include items our loved ones cherished such as your mom’s cookbook that has been handed down through the generations. Or maybe it was your grandfather’s watch that he wore every day that was passed down to you.
Now that you have your sacred place picked out and you have gathered your meaningful objects, it is time to arrange and set up your altar to your liking.
There are no rules here, the only thing that matters is that it feels good to you. Display your objects and light your incense or candles.
This is now your sacred place for you to retreat to anytime. Go back to your altar anytime you need to take a break and recharge or anytime you want to connect with yourself on a deeper, more spiritual, level.
Feel how the altar and space make you feel. If you feel at peace and at ease, then you succeeded in creating a sacred space and altar. Remember that the more time you spend in your sacred space, the more power your altar will hold!
Samhain is the time of year when many members of the Pagan community celebrate the cycle of life and death, although, celebrating the dead has slowly changed over the years. As some traditions of Samhain including large fires, sacrificed animals and tables full of prepared food left as offerings to the dead have come to a halt, some traditions remain, like the Old World traditions of guising, or dressing up in a costume of disguise, or the setting up of a Samhain altar to honor the dead. Some families cast a circle and think of their deceased loved ones. As a part of the ritual, they will share memories and stories of their ancestors or of loved ones that have passed. However, some families choose to visit the cemetery to honor their deceased family members, instead. Making a Samhain altar is the perfect way to celebrate Samhain and to honor your ancestors.