There seems to be a giant cloud of self-judgement floating around many Pagans I know (myself included). We have this feeling that we aren’t doing enough, and that our practice isn’t living up to its full potential. We strive for perfection, and if we’re not dancing naked under every full moon, performing elaborate rituals on the regular, or celebrating every single change of the sun/moon/season, that we’re a bad witch. But I’m here to tell you, it’s just not true.
The problem isn’t us. The problem is our expectations of ourselves. They’re so impossible that we almost always fall short. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when it comes to your practice, be kind to yourself. Accept that you’re going to have to be selfish sometimes. You live a busy life with schedules and families. You have people that depend on you and who you depend on. It’s okay if you don't do a ritual-in-the- middle-of-a-forest-skyclad-surrounded-by-50-candles, every single month. Sometimes, that important work conference falls on the same day as the full moon. The family road trip dates are set in stone, and falls directly on the summer solstice. Or even more likely, you’re tired after a long week and simply can’t be bothered to get out of bed, let alone hold an elaborate ritual.
So instead of trying to always one-up ourselves, I think it’s better to have some tried and true simple traditions that you can come back to every year no matter how busy you are. Something seemingly effortless, but packed full of meaning and magick. In an effort to achieve this, I’m starting a series called Simple Sabbats. Small ideas that you can do with your group, your family, or even (like me) home alone in your pajamas. And we’ll be starting with the Witches New Year, Samhain.
First of all, give yourself a pat on the back for remembering the Sabbat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working away, then glance at the calendar and realize that it was TWO WEEKS AGO. In a country that is geared mostly towards the Christian faith, it’s easy to lose track of our holidays when they aren’t being celebrated en mass. We aren’t typically seeing people putting up summer solstice decorations or holding annual Lammas feasts. And so it’s not hard to get lost in our day-to-day lives.
The most important thing to take away from this series, is that these traditions aren’t the rule. There’s no one saying that you have to do it THIS way at THIS time in order for it to have the maximum effect. They’re just small ways to incorporate brief celebrations into your daily life. I struggled for a long time with the Wheel of the Year because I don’t follow standard theism in my practice. Constantly trying to fit myself into the holidays wasn’t working, so finally I decided to fit the holidays to my personal beliefs. And it clicked. Turns out, the standard Pagan holidays are still very relevant to me, just a version not based on deity and more on the agricultural aspect. So, take a moment to reflect on the holiday and what it means to you! Your holidays are your own, so there is no reason to stick to someone else's structure!
1. Create/Update Your Will
If you only do one thing this fall season, please create or update your will and advanced directive. Death is on our minds as the world around us begins to die and we begin to plan for the winter months ahead. So what better time to focus on planning our own deaths as well?
Too many people think that their wishes have been made well known to loved ones, or even that their spoken wishes are legally binding. Sorry to burst the bubble friends, but if you think you’re getting your ashes shot into space because you post it to Facebook on occasion, it’s probably not going to happen. Those friends will not likely be in charge of the decision making when it comes time for your passing. You might even end up plotted in the cemetery next to your racist aunt Beulah that you despised.
And while our final wishes are very important, the truly most important reason you should complete your will/advanced directive is so that your loved ones don’t have to when they’re freshly mourning your death. They will already be consumed by grief at your passing, meanwhile they’ll be filling out paperwork, handling insurance plans, contacting funeral homes, telling other people over and over again that you’ve died. Why not make that time easier on them? If you have everything clearly laid out in a will, all they will need to do is follow what you’ve already laid out. They will be free to grieve knowing that your wishes have been fulfilled, and without the guilt of wondering if they did what you would have truly wanted.
It can be as simple as writing everything down and getting witnesses to sign: https://info.legalzoom.com/make-out-simple-20320.html
Though PLEASE check the requirements for your state!
2. Create an Ancestral Space
It’s a pretty universal understanding that this time of year is when the veil between the two worlds is thin, and spirits are free to walk the earth with us. So it seems only fitting to put little reminders of our loved ones around us to help draw their spirits near. Even for those that don’t believe in spirits, this exercise is a great way to remember your loved ones at this time of year when the air turns cold and comfort is harder to come by.
This year I picked up a few multi-picture frames at a garage sale and filled them with images of some of my ancestors and beloved dead. I then put them on my altar so that I can see them every day and remember my beloved dead. If you don’t want to use photographs, you can always create a family tree, or even just write down the names of the loved ones you wish to draw near and place them in a space of importance such as an altar or hearth.
Remember, it’s the energy surrounding the items that matter, not the physical form they take. Another fun way to invite the spirits of loved ones into your home is to place small offerings in those sacred spaces. These could be food, trinkets, perfumes, etc. Just be careful when setting out food that you don’t attract ants! Seriously, I learned this lesson the hard way.
3. Have a dumb supper or offering plate to the deceased.
This is a great example of how any tradition can be simplified to fit your lifestyle. A dumb supper is traditionally a meal shared with the spirits in silence. A place is set for all of the deceased dinner guests and their plates are made with their favorite foods. However, I personally don't spend the holiday with others so I don’t feel comfortable making enough food to feed 20 people, when it’s just me that will be physically consuming it. There’s already too much food waste in our world.
This year, I’ll be making dinner as usual, but I’ll also bake a small loaf of bread for the dumb supper. I'll slice a piece off the loaf for all of my beloved dead and after the dumb supper I'll set them all on a single plate outside as an offering. (Seriously, ants are a real problem around here.)
If you don’t have time to bake anything extra, there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying something from the store, and don’t let anyone ever tell you differently. Or even if you don't have time to make any kind of offering, everyone has to eat dinner! Taking the time to eat one meal in complete silence, with no music or TV in the background, thinking of your loved ones and imagining them there with you in your space is all you need. This exercise isn’t necessarily about the meal itself, it’s about the idea of spending time with your loved ones. Taking the time to truly sit with them and enjoy feeling their energy and presence once more.
4. Spirit Work & Communication
Speaking of spending time with the spirits! If you have the time available, this is the perfect opportunity to reach out to those spirits around you and listen to what they have to say. If there are any special people who have passed on this year, why not take the time to chat? Maybe even tell them the things you were unable to while they were with us. Often in today's world we don't allow ourselves the time to mourn, and so taking the time to communicate with your loved ones can help gain closure. There are so many forms of divination you can use and a plethora of spirits to reach out to; loved ones, house spirits, elementals, deity. If you're skilled in this department, maybe you could host a séance with some friends!
The simplest way I’ve found to communicate at this time of year is with a pendulum (though any form of divination can be used to speak with the spirits of course). Try tying a heavy object onto a piece of string and holding it suspended and still. Begin to swing it in different directions and speak out loud to indicate which answers correspond to each motion (forward/backward = yes, side-to-side = no, clockwise circles = maybe, etc). Once you’ve determined the indicators, begin to ask questions of your loved ones. Make sure you have a pen and paper nearby to record their messages. And don’t be afraid to answer back! You might find it helpful to place objects around you that were important to, or symbolize the loved one you wish to speak with.
5. Visit a Cemetery
I’m clearly biased on this, as spending time in cemeteries is my favorite thing to do. But I truly think this is an extraordinary way to celebrate the season. Many times when I go to cemeteries with friends or new acquaintances, they’ll mention that the only time they visit to a cemetery is for a funeral or when a family member drags them along. This mindset can psychologically attach some pretty negative emotions towards cemeteries and even death itself, when in fact, they can be the best place to face that negativity towards death head-on.
Even if you don’t know someone buried there, taking the time to stroll through the headstones can push us to think of our own inevitable deaths, the deaths of our loved ones, and the deaths of those we’ve never even met. By spending time with these ideas we’re able to de-stigmatize them in our own mind. Possibly even motivate us to think about what we might want for ourselves when we die. Often, these thoughts are never discussed and so when someone dies, it’s left to the family to determine what they think we would have wanted. Thinking about death won’t make you die, and yet we tend to do everything in our power to avoid it. So this year, spend some time in a cemetery, think about death, and try to find some comfort in doing so.
6. Do some stargazing.
We're in the time of the year when the sun its moving south along the ecliptic, and will sitting lower and closer to the horizon. This means shorter days and long nights, perfect for viewing the cosmos. Even if you don’t have time to learn exactly WHAT you’re looking at, staring into the sky and really absorbing what you see can help to coordinate yourself in the world, much like a meditation. These days, unfortunately, I don’t have the time to sit in my back yard every night, but as the days are shortening, more and more stars are appearing on my walk home from work work in the evenings.
The constellation Phoenix will be rising along the southern horizon soon. This constellation never fully rises in the Northern Hemisphere, and the full constellation can only be seen around Samhain. During this time it should become visible around 10pm. This is fitting to the season, as the phoenix is a symbol of death and rebirth. The brightest star in this constellation, Fomalhaut, will help pinpoint this bird in the sky. I personally use the SkyView app to help me find the constellations I’m seeking out. With this app you can hold up your smartphone and it will use the camera feature to identify and name the stars in real time. There is a free version of the app with limited capabilities that would work well for this exercise too.
You’ll find that the more time you take to spend with the stars, the more familiar you’ll become with their locations in the sky and their relations to each other. You don’t need to study for years to learn about our skies, just taking a few minutes daily to locate and identify a few popular stars and constellations will quickly build your knowledge!
7. Hourglass Meditation
What is death but the running out of time? We're all short on time it seems, in the day-to-day sense as well as the esoteric. That's why this is one of the simplest, but most meaningful traditions to start this holiday season.
You can find some beautiful hourglasses online, but a cheaper alternative can be found at most dollar and discount stores. Usually you can find hourglasses in various sizes in the home decor section. The most important thing to do when choosing an hourglass it to consider how much time you’re able to spend on this meditation, and choose a size accordingly. (For example, if you know you’ll realistically only have 5 minutes on your way out the door, maybe pass on the giant 20lb hourglass that will continue on for another 55 minutes after you’ve left the house.)
After you’ve got the hourglass, it’s as simple as placing it somewhere that you’ll notice it on a daily basis. Then, whenever you’re able, turn the hourglass over and use that time to think about your loved ones that have passed. You can focus on the details of their physical appearance, happy memories that you shared, even terrible memories you’d rather forget. The important thing is to take the time and remember them.
8. Read a story/myth relevant to your belief system.
One of my favorite ways to celebrate the season is by reading some folklore or myths related to the turning of the wheel. And there’s no shortage of stories at this time of the year! Whether you’re interested in the Greek myth of Persephone, the battle of the Holly & Oak Kings, or even if you love the way that the Harry Potter books keep life and death in constant balance, spend some time reading something that is relevant to your beliefs around this holiday.
You can host a family gathering where someone reads the tale aloud to the group, read it as a bedtime story for your child, or just read a quick blog post on your commute home from work. Stories have long been the most sacred way of passing on traditions, so find something that matters to you, that you would like to share and pass on.
This year was the first that I have a garden. Correction: This is the first year that I have a garden that I actually maintained. We're getting our final harvests from the summer crops, and I can already see some of my plants starting to settle down into the dirt, waiting for death. It's time to get the last of the tomatoes off of the vine, and pull any carrots that haven't yet been nibbled up.
If you garden, even if its just growing a few herbs, or have some flowers next to your front door, think about the symbolism of the harvest as you get those spaces ready for the winter. The earth is dying around us and we should spend some time thinking about how lucky we are to live in an age where food is readily available throughout the winter. We no longer have to rely on our own crops to last us through the cold seasons. Another activity you can do to really get into the spirit of things, is to learn how to can your harvest!
10. Decorate! Carve Pumpkins/Gourds/Turnips
This tradition dates back centuries. As a way of scaring off the bad spirits, decorate your home with some scary friends. Particularly near any entrances into the home. You can carve pumpkins, gourds, squash, even turnips! It may feel like cheating, but I swear its not! What is a better way to celebrate than to deck out your home in things that remind you on a daily basis about the holiday?
BONUS: Wear a costume!!
Dress up and go out on the town for Halloween. Even small towns will have a costume contest hiding somewhere in the festivities! This year I'll be dressing up as Carmen SanDiego, international woman of mystery. What will you be dressing up as? :)