Appreciating Samhain as a Family
One day my daughter was peeling a hard-boiled egg. She said, "I wonder why eggs have so many parts: there is the shell, then the skin part, then the egg inside."
I said, "Well, each part has its purpose."
She turned to me and asked, "Do people have a purpose?"
I smiled and said yes, that every person had a purpose, though we don't always know what that purpose is. "I thought so," she said, "but I just wondered."
These are the kinds of everyday encounters that can instill in our children the sacredness of life and help launch deeper discussions. They also introduce the idea of metaphor; the egg is real, and it is also a story about purpose. Just like the Wheel of the Year.
The Wheel of the Year is a metaphor, a story about meaning, unfolding, growth, and journey. As a Pagan parent, I am always offering my children both the literal interaction with life (the garden, the egg) and the story (Samhain, magic, purpose) that will guide them as they grow physically, emotionally and spiritually. Through play and daily living, we live the Wheel.
The cycle of the planet around the Sun brings us through eight sabbats, each both a literal and a metaphorical guide to our spiritual journeys. To Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and others who center their spiritual path in the Earth, the Wheel is our sacred text. As Pagan parents, we can draw on the spiral of the sabbats as we raise our children. It is a curriculum for life, a how-to guide for the evolution of our material and spiritual selves on Earth.
For many Pagans the Wheel begins with Samhain, as the Goddess descends into the underworld and the earth rests. Where I live in eastern Colorado, we often get our first snow around Samhain. The garden is done producing, the chickens are laying fewer eggs, and the summer bounty has already been preserved. I use Samhain as a resting point between the busyness of summer and fall and the bustle of Thanksgiving and Yule. Samhain has always been a favorite holiday of mine, and I enjoy sharing the traditions with my children.
In some ways, Samhain is the easiest Pagan holiday to celebrate publicly because many of its symbols and practices have been embraced by secular culture for Halloween and the Catholic All Hallow's Eve. However, the American Halloween portrays death as a frightening, freakish specter. This puzzles my young daughter. She has grown up with the Wheel of the Year as danced by the garden. She knows that plants die to make a new life. She has said goodbye to three beloved chickens. We discuss lovingly and matter-of-factly how three of her grandparents are spirits now, just as she was before she joined this family. To her, death is not frightening, just interesting, a phase of the journey about which she has many questions, but no fear.
One simple and powerful symbol of death is the annual show of leaves turning yellow, brown, and red, then falling to the ground where we play with them and pile them on the garden beds. My children rejoice in the colors of autumn as mums and pumpkins arrive at the grocery store and in the garden. We carve jack-o'-lanterns several times in October, for it is a craft and a ritual we all enjoy. Carving pumpkins and the other perennial ritual of costume-making provide doorways to discuss the meaning of the holiday. Gourd lanterns guide us and our ancestors through the literal and metaphorical darkness. Meanwhile, costumes and masks allow us to explore aspects of our inner selves. Many popular Halloween costumes also depict death and the ancestors. The season is all about going within to the darkness, into our shadows, and meeting ourselves and those who have gone before.
Children (and adults) came to understand part of who they are by exploring their roots, and Samhain can be a perfect time to delve into family history by sharing stories from the past, poring over photo albums, and even crafting a family tree. This can be simple as a big piece of poster board showing three or four generations, or you could begin a family history project using online or print genealogy resources. Include your poster or other projects on your family altar.
Samhain is also a time to discuss, depending on the ages of your children, the Halloween symbol of the Witch versus real Witches. My daughter and I tend to have these talks in the car en route to our various activities. We talk about how real Witches are normal people who believe that the earth is sacred (and discuss what sacred means) and who practice magic. Then, of course, we discuss magic. I stay away from lecturing; my daughter's natural curiosity and keen questions guide the conversation, and we move on when she changes the subject. As my children grow older, these talks will grow more in-depth, including the history of Halloween symbols and their meaning to us as Pagans. I always tie these discussions to real examples in her life, like the rituals we follow in the garden and at the dinner table.
For my family, our Samhain rituals include giving thanks and saying goodbye to the past year. We turn the compost, searching for bugs and discussing how the bugs eat the dead plants to make healthy soil, that will nourish plants that will die to nourish us. We thank the garden and the compost for their gifts to us. Other families might perform a Samhain ritual with an altar, salt, water, and invocation of gardening goddesses like Demeter or Proserpine. We cook pumpkin pie and bread, honoring how a plant can offer so many gifts and discuss how spices and plants have magical qualities: cinnamon and pumpkin offer protection, love, and abundance. We light candles at the dinner table and say prayers for our loved ones living and dead. As my children get older, I introduce new aspects of ritual, such as anointing candles or casting a circle. For now, most of our sacred practice is tied to everyday activities like eating and gardening. Food is sacred and the land is sacred. These are the foundations of our path.
Children learn through doing, through play, and through stories. Samhain is a time of the fall-to-winter play, which tells the story of the Goddess entering the underworld. Some stories to share include the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, the Sumerian myth of Innana's descent, and the Celtic story of the Morrigan. Some children may want to act out these stories; younger ones can do puppet shows while older youth may want to put on family pageants with elaborate costumes. Either would be fun activities for a Halloween party and can be followed up with a discussion about the myths and where children see themselves in the stories.
Samhain is also a time of letting go, a lesson all of us revisit again and again. For Samhain, make rituals out of whatever you and your children are letting go of, be that a loved one, warm days, or a beloved summer shirt. Write poems or spells together that honor the importance of whatever you say goodbye to. Let it be an age-appropriate discussion of how it hurts to say goodbye and how that can be a new beginning at the same time. Light a candle and take time for reflection as you read your poem or recite your spell. Invite silence as well.
You also may want to read popular culture Halloween stories and discuss the symbology behind them if it's age-appropriate. Draw pictures of the season's sacred symbols—apples, pumpkins, masks, etc.—and discuss them. On Samhain night, make an ancestor altar together, with pictures of loved ones, sacred symbols, seasonal decorations, and a candle or two. Include your family tree. Introduce the meaning of the four elements and Spirit. Older children and teens may want to create altars for themselves, with seasonal images and symbols from their own lives like gifts from friends, poems they've written, and other treasures. Let the family or personal altars be a place to honor and discuss "darker" emotions like sadness, grief, or fear. These practices, as simple or complex as appropriate, will form the foundation for more complex learning and spiritual growth as your children grow through the spiraling Wheel of the Year.
By Clea Danaan (c) Lllewellyn Publishing Inc Originally Published in From Llewellyn's Sabbats Almanac: Samhain 2011 to Mabon 2012. Shop current almanacs here. And for family Halloween costumes, visit CosplayCostumeCloset.com