Tis the season once again, All Hallows is upon us. The Wild Hunt rides out across the night sky, heard in the blustery winds, stripping the last remaining leaves from the Trees. The Ghostly procession walks the land upon the old trackways as the threshold between the worlds is at its thinnest. Children (and adults!) dress up as goblins and ghouls, knocking on doors in the hopes of returning home with a booty of sweets. Pumpkins sell like hot cakes as us brits have abandoned the traditional Turnip Jack-o-Lantern for the American Pumpkin (far easier to carve!). In Britain the first few fireworks and bonfires are ignited in remembrance of Old Guy Fawkes, yet for me the fires burn in memory of all that has passed, all those who have left the earthly planes…the ancestors and Mighty Dead without whom I wouldn’t be here today and whose guidance and wisdom lives on. It is the time to cast away all that we have outgrown, all that has served its purpose, the weak and infirmed and we look inwards towards the inner fire, the divine spark which will see us through the darkest of days as we plan for the coming year.
There are a number of customs and traditional practises we can look toward to mark this special and magical time. Here in Kent there are a few observances I uphold every year and here they are…
Creating Ancestral Altars & Shrines
This is the first thing I do on the eve of All Hallows (I.e. the night before All Hallows itself). Ancestral Altars and Shrines are intensely personal and no one can tell anyone else what they should and should not hold. My ancestral altars usually always hold photographs of my ancestors, a bouquet of Yew, Rosemary and Red Roses, vessels to hold offerings, candles, my skull (not literally MY skull of course but a resin cast skull I purchased some years ago, im not lucky enough to own a real bone skull) and an incense holder. Other items are sometimes added depending on my mood and what inspires me. The ancestral altar will act as a meeting place between you and the honoured dead so maintain it as such. See also my post on Altars and Shrines. What you do here is of course between you and the spirits but I tend to sit and commune, speak, share my experiences, pray and of course leave offerings. My Nan loved her Sherry so I always buy a bottle for her, my Grandfather was a Whisky and Brandy drinker so he gets a snifter of that and then there is wine, bread and an apple warmed slightly in the hand. The symbolism of the Apple is endless…but primarily it is the fruit of the other world and immortality, it was also given as a token of love when warmed by the blood.
There is of course a fun element to this practise, and its one I look forward too every year. I don’t use the traditional Turnip (too small and to friggin tough!) but I use the popular american Pumpkin. My Other half gets involved too, and we indulge in a little healthy competition to see whose Jack-o-Lantern will look the best. Kids love it too and the seeds can be roasted with butter and sugar or salt to make a healthy and delicious snack (the seeds are high in Zinc especially good for the Fellas!) and the flesh can be made into a myriad of culinary dishes from soups to pies.
In our house however the Jack-o-Lantern serves a purpose greater than just mild entertainment. At least one is always enchanted to stand guard at the entrance to our house keeping out any unruly members of the procession who may mean us harm. This year we had four!!
The Dumb Supper
As my partner is not a Witch (not even Pagan) we have to compromise on this one a little. Traditionally a meal is cooked and prepared and shared by the whole family. An extra place setting is laid for the spirits of the beloved dead. it is called the dumb supper as it is generally enjoyed in silent communion. However, in our house we don’t do this in silence, my other half puts up with a degree of my witchiness so I don’t expect him to sit in silence, we do have an extra place setting and we cook the food of our childhoods, meals our grandparents made us on one condition…it must involve meat…this is the final harvest after all! We enjoy our dinner with usual conversation aimed towards our honoured guests. Bless Him for putting up with me and my Witchy ways (I think he secretly enjoys it!). Our Guests always get their own special plate and bowl, their own special wine glass and are generally made a complete fuss over. The food stays put until the meal is over at which point I take it outside and bury it. You could leave it there longer, I however have 2 male cats who eat pretty much anything and everything and I wouldn’t appreciate a couple of Tom cats nicking my dinner so I don’t expect my ancestors to put up with it anymore than I would!
The All Hallows meal is one of my favourite customs, partly because I love cooking but mainly because its real family time, whether that family be living or dead, we in modern society seem to gather around the table less and less and any tradition which encourages us to break bread together as a family once more is a good one in my book!
Walking the Ghost Roads
There are many of the old trackways crisscrossing this land and Kent’s most famous is The Pilgrims Way (see previous blog posts A Well Trodden Path Part One and Part Two) which is old and you can sense and feel the age of the trackway even when it isn’t All Hallows. Around All Hallows however I like to make a special trip and wander the tracks, and feel the power of the old Ghost Roads, communing with the shades of ancient travellers.
Visiting the Cemetery
This year was a special year. About a month or so before All Hallows I confirmed where my paternal grandparents were buried. They died before my father was in his 20s at a time when their only 2 children couldn’t afford much in the way of a funeral or memorial. Their grave, in the beautiful churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in Seal lies unmarked, seemingly forgotten. Yet the Vicar helped my locate their grave and this All Hallows i made a special trip to honour them, and all those who lay seemingly forgotten. I left a single red rose to symbolise that with my existence no ancestor is truly gone, as their blood flows through my veins and their collective experiences mixed with my own make me the person I am today. Whilst I never met them in life, they live on through me.
Offerings for the Procession
For three nights starting on the Eve of All Hallows I like to leave offerings outside our back door for the Spirits of the Wild Hunt, the Faerie folk and of course the ghostly procession that roams the land. I always bake a special poppy-seed loaf for All Hallows so I offer a couple of slices of this buttered with honey, a glass of spiced milk, brandy, wine and apples. Gotta keep the mischievous ones happy!
Creating Spirit Houses
This is a potential Blog Post on its own however for now I recommend reading Gemma Gary’s book on Cornish Witchcraft which has a small section dedicated to creating Spirit Houses. (Buy it Here). Also the Witch of Forest Grove has posted some great Blogs on spirit houses. What i will say however is this…create your spirit house according to the imparted inspiration of the spirits. You wouldn’t move into a house you didn’t like and neither will they. Be guided by published sources but it will be a spirit house for spirits who choose to be there so make it suit them. For example, if you live near the sea or your ancestors were fishermen you might make your spirit house out of an old glass fishing float. Alternatively you can use a small box, bottle or jar filled with symbolic tokens such as stones, shells, personal objects from your ancestors etc. Ultimately let their wisdom guide you, make it your own, make it for them in which they might choose to happily dwell and reside there for continued help and communion.
It’s the end of a year, a new year approaches. The veil between the worlds thin, it’s the perfect conditions for divination. I use Runes and Tarot and im also developing my skills using Playing Cards. I look back, I look in and I look ahead. Through card and stone the spirits guide me, teaching me what I need to learn and carry forward, what should be cast aside, and what plans will prove most fruitful next year.
Of course this is not all…there were words spoken that were for the ears of my ancestors only, deeds were done and exchanges were made which were for us alone, but whatever you did to mark the coming of winter, the day of the dead, the final harvest…May it be blessed!