You probably didn’t know that Halloween doubles as Samhain, the Witches’ New Year

Halloween is pretty much the best. We can be whoever we want for one whole day, celebrating with our loved ones as we up the spooky and our inner ghouls come out. There’s no denying it: Halloween just feels different. And while many will pass this off as just another holiday, for witches and some Neo-Pagans, Halloween is more than just a night of costumes and candy — it’s the New Year, and one of the most powerful nights of the entire year.

Halloween, also called Samhain for those who celebrate, is when the veil between this world and the realm of the dead is at its thinnest. But it’s not as scary as it sounds! We have the lowdown on this holiday and how to celebrate.

It’s based on an ancient harvest holiday.

Samhain is based on an ancient Celtic holiday, and the last of three harvest holidays. It’s when the livestock was slaughtered in preparation for the winter, and when a feast was prepared to celebrate the turning of the year. It’s speculated that this is related to the Roman festivals of Feralia, a day to commemorate the dead, and a holiday honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees.

Although the church later created All Souls Day, a day to honor martyrs, the truth is that Halloween is much older than that. And today, many witches choose to honor the day as a portal and gateway; not only to the other side, but to the next year as well.

Samhain isn’t as scary as it sounds.

Although each witch’s celebration will be different, there are a few main things that Samhain aims to do. One is to connect us with the changing year, called the “wheel of the year,” and the turning of the seasons. Halloween marks a full plummet into the darkness of the year; it’s when we continue to focus on our shadows, on our depths, and on transformation. It is Scorpio season after all!

Another important aspect of Samhain is honoring those who have passed away. A popular way to do so is through decorating an altar — putting photos, talismans, belongings, favorite foods, flowers, and sweets upon the altar not only helps us connect to those who have died, but helps us find a way to celebrate their lives. Rituals, spells, and magick focus on contacting the dead, honoring their lives, observing the past year, looking forward to the new year, work with divination, and commemorating whatever else needs to be remembered.

Again, this will be personal to each practitioner!

Death isn’t an end; on Samhain particularly, it’s seen as a doorway to intense transformation. Yes, it’s scary (hello, it’s the unknown), but death is also a part of life. On Samhain we sit with it, talk to it, connect with it, and learn about it. We move through the gate of death into the new year, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

And if you want to celebrate, you’re invited!

If you’re feeling inspired to celebrate Samhain, but are new to witchcraft or magick, there are just a few things to remember. One: energy is powerful. Take it slowly, and don’t rush in. Read books, listen to podcasts, and start making a daily practice. Secondly, thousands and thousands and thousands of people have died for us to be able to practice witchcraft. There are still witch hunts going on today in other parts of the world. When we practice, we honor those who allowed us to be where we are today. This isn’t just a trend or something cool to post on Instagram. It’s a way to live and see the world, and for many people, it’s also part of their religion; so please, respect that.

And lastly — have fun! Yes, magick is real and energy is real, but you’re supposed to enjoy the process, so please do.

Create an altar for loved ones.

If you want to celebrate, try creating an altar. You can use any flat surface like a nightstand, the top of a dresser, a windowsill, a shelf. You can cleanse the space with sacred smoke from sage or palo santo, or use a cinnamon broom or salt to clear out the energy. Then think of who you want to honor. This can be a family member or friend, or even someone you never met who you connect with. It can be a favorite writer, musician, artist, poet, scientist. Get creative! You can put photos of them on your altar, alongside things this person likes, or that you connected over. You can add in candles (black, white, orange, and red are good choices), crystals (like onyx, tourmaline, and crystal quartz), tarot cards, pieces of art, fake (or real!) skulls, and whatever else you want on your altar. Ask yourself, “What would make me feel most connected to this person’s energy?” and then do whatever that is.

Meditate on the Death card.

In tarot, the 13th card in the deck is the Death card. But thankfully, it doesn’t mean real death. It means transformation; the veil lifting, exposing something new, something big, something important. When this card comes up in a reading, we take note; we recognize that things are going to change and transform and usher us into a new era. And that same energy is what Samhain is all about. It’s a day when the veil is lifted and we’re able to see the interconnectedness in everything.

When we welcome back loved ones with open arms, when we flirt with death. If you don’t have a tarot deck, you can print a photo of this card. Then, take at least five minutes to sit with it. Turn off your phone, put on some ambient music, and listen to your breath. How can you transform in the coming year? Who can you continue to honor? How can you start to see death as a door and not an end? We question our mortality on Halloween; don’t be scared to go deep, recording what you find in a journal or in your grimoire.

You can try this simple ritual to honor your ancestors and reflect on the past year.

You’ll need: A black and white chime candle, a pen and paper, a fire safe bowl, a lighter, and any crystals or cards you want.

Step 1: Breathe, ground and center.

Make sure you’re alone, somewhere you can burn some pages safely. Turn your phone off or on silent, burn some incense, cleanse your space, and find a seat. Take a few deep breaths, feeling where you’re supported by the earth.

Start to imagine the base of your spine like a golden cord, growing deep into the earth. Imagine this golden cord extending into your heart, with a light from the cosmos beaming from your head down into your heart, mingling with the energy from below. Feel this dance of ground energy below and vitalizing energy from above. Honor this as a source of power and connection.

Step 2: Write a letter to your ancestors.

Write a letter to your ancestors or loved ones who have passed. You can say thank you, tell them what you’re up to, or remind them that you love them. Let this come from the heart. Spend as much time as you need here.

Step 3: Light the candles and reflect.

Once you’re finished, light your black and white candles (which represent the balance of energies), while remembering to connect to your breath. Then, read your letter aloud. Imagine that all your loved ones are gathered around you, holding space for you, listening. When you’re finished, you can gaze at the flames of the candle, asking to receive any messages from your loved ones and ancestors. Again, stay here as long as you need.

Step 4: Make a list of thorns and roses of the past year.

Fold a piece of paper in half, hot dog-style. On the left, write down all the good things about the past year (aka the roses), and on the right, write down all the hard, difficult, or bad things from the past year (aka the thorns). What had more? Try to see the blessing in each thorn and then read both lists aloud to your ancestors. Thank them for everything: the good, bad, and the in-between. Tell them what you learned, how you evolved ,and how you grew. Then rip the paper up and burn it, releasing it into the universe.

Step 5: Think of the year ahead.

What do you hope to accomplish in the year ahead? Make a list, either on a piece of paper or in your grimoire. Be honest. Be real. Know that it can happen in your mind, body, and soul. And then read this list aloud and ask your ancestors for their blessing. If you have this on a loose leaf, place it somewhere you can see every day.

Step 6: Thank your ancestors and ground the energy.

Once you’ve finished reading your list, thank your ancestors. Say anything else you need, and ask them to bless your new year. Let the candles burn down all the way, making sure they’re in a safe container or in the sink, and then ground your energy. Keep your letter to reflect on next Halloween. Press your forehead into the floor, imaging all the excess energy in your body returning to the earth. Stay here as long as you need, and then go on your merry way.

No matter how you celebrate, have the best Halloween ever. Honor your ancestors, flirt with death, and remember to have a Happy New Year!