First, let’s clear up my favorite bit of propaganda: Samhain is not named after the Druid god of death.
For one thing, the Druids didn’t have a god of death.
For another thing, the name means “summer’s end.”
So how did it get to be associated with death, Druid god or not?
Simple, Samhain is the final harvest, the last of the three harvest festivals. Anything left in the fields after this belonged to the Fey and could not be harvested, but more than that, this is when animals that would not be kept through the winter were slaughtered and their meat preserved for the coming months.
Granted, in modern times we don’t worry so much about laying in supplies for the winter (except in areas where it snows and the mention of a possible snowstorm sends people on a frantic run to the grocery store for bread, milk, eggs, and toilet paper), so Samhain has taken on a different emphasis.
The Veil Between the Worlds is at its thinnest (see earlier comment about not taking the Fey’s food) and some believe that the spirits of the dead come back to visit their loved ones at this time.
So, at Samhain, Pagans honor their dead. (Think of it as our Memorial Day: we honor the spirits of those who have passed through the Veil.)
We do this in various ways: the most common are to set an extra place at the table for them and to spend some time meditating and remembering them and their influence on our lives. Most of us also do some sort of divination now, although it doesn’t necessarily involve the spirits.
My own traditions for Samhain primarily revolve around a special meal with foods that (mostly) hold a special significance.
Ham: in honor of Cerridwen, Keeper of the Cauldron of Rebirth (and Inspiration), to Whom pigs were sacred and Who was known as “The Great Sow.” (It was not an insult – pigs were important.)
Along with the ham are potatoes, both white and sweet. Why? Well, I like potatoes. But also because they grow beneath the ground so have a connection to death and the underworld.
Dessert consist of chocolate cherry upside down cake and pecan pies. The pecan pies are in honor of my paternal grandfather as they were a favorite of his. (He also loved three bean salad but I can’t stand the smell of it, let alone the taste, so he has to make do with dessert if he visits.) And the chocolate cherry upside down cake because it is dark and sweet, and the red of the cherries on the near black of the cake is a reminder of the ancient association with death – blood spilled onto the earth. (Add a plop of whipped cream, though, and it has the three colors of the Goddess, which gives me an excuse to make it any time.)
What traditions do you have for Samhain? A special meal? A special ritual? If you don’t have any, why not start?