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Love witch
Love Witch (2016)

8 ways to celebrate Samhain, AKA the Witches’ New Year

Astrologer and witch Grace McGrade explains the ancient pagan origins of Halloween, and shares her alternative rituals to celebrate it

The Halloween we celebrate today has become a hectic race of binge consumption, Instagrammable costumes and blow-out parties. In the US, it’s a $10 billion dollar industry, a season of lucrative corporate profit. As we return to the enthusiasm of pre-pandemic life, most households will engage in a ritual of some sort, whether that’s anointing their home with frightful lawn statues, dressing up or handing out treats. However, this cross-continental holiday and its roots long precede capitalism – and even Christianity. 


For some, October 31 is celebrated as the Witches’ New Year, still acknowledged as a powerful spiritual milestone. It is said to be when the veils between the earth plane and the spirit realm are sheet thin. In Irish and Celtic Paganism, Halloween finds its roots in Samhain. Samhain translates to “Summer’s End”, as the Ancient Celts divided the year into two major portions, although there were many holidays in their wheel of the year. As the Sun dimmed and the days shortened, so did a period of “light” and doing. Samhain, pronounced “Sow-inn”, was a time to reap the benefits of the end of Harvest Season. As we approached the more lunar, feminine season of hibernation, bonfires would be lit to mimic the power of the weakened Sun. It was a Sabbat of contrast between the light and dark, the masculine and the feminine cycles. The three days, beginning Hallows eve, were recognised as a major threshold, a liminal space of supernatural intensity. 

The Ancient Celts were particularly fond of threshold moments and transitioning cycles were revered as important gateways. It was said that on the night of Samhain, time seemed to stand still, while two worlds merged. Ghosts of spirits, gods and fairies were able to collide with the living. In order to honour and ensure a safe passageway for the dearly departed, the ancient celts would gather on fairy mounds (or portals, known as ‘sidhe’) to engage in bonfires and dances. It was said that these mounds functioned as powerful gateways for occupants of the “Otherworld”.

The Otherworld was revered as a parallel reality that ran alongside us, containing supernatural beings and ancestors alike. The recently departed were said to be able to visit from the otherworld over the duration of these days. The fae, or fair folk, were among some of the other inhabitants of this realm. Rather than the meek and minuscule fairies depicted in cartoons, these were said to be taller than humans, possessing the ability to do magic and speak things into existence. Not all good, and not all bad, the supernatural beings of the otherworld were a mixed bag. 


The implications of missing such milestones were immense. Failure to recognise them was said to result in illness, death or terrible luck. Early texts suggest that participation in Samhain was mandatory for the ancient Celts. As the realm of the living merged with the magical, protective measures were a must. In order to secure protection for livestock and prevent spiritual mischief, offerings to the fae folk were left out. Feasts and silent suppers would be observed on Samhain Eve, and a place was set at the head of the table for the ancestors. This was thought to not only ensure the fertility of the land, but secure good luck for ancestral lineages. The Otherworld was a tricky place, populated not only by the newly departed, but also with powerful gods, whose intentions were as varying as that of the human realm. Although there is speculation about whether darker, more sacrificial rituals were observed, overall Samhain was a time to celebrate the ancestors and embrace the passage into a more introspective season. 


Congruent traditions were prominent in the ancient traditions of the Aztecs and the Mayans across continents halfway across the globe. Little is known about how such separate cultures could have similar rituals. The Day of the Dead, a more modern celebration still observed in Mexico today, is a lively festival honouring those who have passed on. Graveyard gatherings and lavish altars are curated with offerings of tobacco, food, drink and flowers. Pathways of marigolds pave the streets, to ensure that the spirits can find their way home. This is a closer rendering of what Samhain would have been like, as death is honoured and celebrated.

Across these three nights and days, death was embraced as a natural part of life, and people let the spirits wash over them with respect, receptivity and celebration. Today, it is an industry where we celebrate the darker elements of the human psyche, perhaps blissfully unaware of its importance to certain lineages. However, the more science, psychology and epigenetics progress, we realise we are always entangled with our ancestors – for better or worse. 

For modern-day witches, a new approach to Samhain can be revisited, thanks to the age of information. Here are some modern twists on old rituals.