If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen pictures of my many Halloween/Samhain meals. If you’ve bumped into me in the real world, my enthusiasm for the most sacred Pagan holiday is impossible to miss. I start counting down at the beginning of summer, and the decorations come out after Labor Day. Samhain, the holiday I celebrate, is close enough to secular Halloween practices that I don’t get many chances to talk about my traditions. This year, though, I’ve had a few questions so I’m writing this blog not to say what every Pagan or Wiccan does, but what I do and why.
A seat at the table
Samhain, the last of the Pagan harvest feasts, closes out the year and marks the time when the souls of the dead are able to return to earth. We welcome them into our home by setting a place for them at the table. They get the same china, silverware, and glasses as the rest of us. It’s symbolic; a powerful reminder that the dead are still with us. And while I don’t go so far as to fill their plate, I do make sure my menu would appeal.
Samhain feasts and Halloween meals
If someone you loved was able to come back to your house for one meal, you’d make their favorite foods. And years ago, that’s what I did, making a single, giant Samhain feast filled with the favorite foods from everyone I loved who had died. As I’ve aged, the number of people I’ve lost has grown, and I want to take time to savor the memories and the favorite foods from each one of them. Now I make a special meal each weekend. When I can, I use the recipes from the people I’ve lost. I remember the times we cooked together, or enjoyed a good meal filled with laughter and smiles.
My best friend from college died after going through treatment for breast cancer in 2010. I’ll never forget the elaborate brunches we had together, or the fun breakfasts before class at P.K’s coffee shop. So for her I made waffles with blueberry topping.
My mother-in-law was a famous baker in her day, so much so that her chocolate cake recipe was included in the church cookbook in 1965. I thought about her as I made it. The year the recipe was published she would have been married with babies to raise. She had more responsibility and insanity in her life than I do at the same age, and yet she took the time to sift cocoa into flour for the people she loved. Her recipe still tastes amazing.
There are about as many variations on the tale of Jack and his lantern as there are people who tell it. I was raised with the very romantic version:
After a bad deal with the Devil, Jack was taken to hell but the trickster managed to finagle a day pass to see the woman he loved every Samhain. Determined to ensure Jack wouldn’t enjoy his time with her, the Devil insisted Jack carry burning embers in his hands to light his way to the land of the living. If Jack didn’t bring the embers back, there would be no escape the next year. Jack cleverly tossed the embers into a hollowed out turnip. When he arrived at his love’s house he set them at the front door so he could have his unburned hands free for more romantic uses.
Jack’s story, with its brains over brutality moral and a hero who returns to the land of the living for a night, is commemorated by at least a half dozen jack-o’-lanterns by my front door, in my kitchen, and around my house.
While I have at least a dozen more traditions, like visiting graveyards and giving out candy, I never miss these three big ones. As a kid, Halloween seems creepy-cool, a magical time when anything can happen. Samhain with its focus on the dead and how they influence our lives seemed a bit stuffy. But as an adult, the memories of people who have died bring me joy. When I cook for them, using their recipes, I feel like I’m sharing a meal with them again. I love the way this time of year lets me honor their memories, share their stories, and keep them present in my life.