top of page

How to Celebrate Samhain in Appalachia

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

October 31


Pumpkin patch at Grace Episcopal Church, Asheville.
Pumpkin patch at Grace Episcopal Church, Asheville.

In Between Realms


Shadows creep further down the hollows and valleys of Appalachia, as the Sun crests lower and lower with each passing day. All around, the forest drops a multicolored veil of leaves to show off its hidden beauty. Snow has already fallen on the craggy peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains. Black bears prowl the land for acorns and other plentiful snacks, gorging as much as possible before lumbering into their dens for hibernation. At the halfway point between summer and winter, Halloween embodies a time of transformation and liminality between life and death.



Virginia creeper and poison ivy in their autumn colors at Riverside Cemetery, Asheville.
Virginia creeper and poison ivy in their autumn colors at Riverside Cemetery, Asheville.

Pagan Halloween


Connecting the holiday back to ancient Celtic traditions, many Pagans refer to October 31 by the Irish name Samhain. Over thousands of years it took on new meanings, as Christians in the British Isles sought to align their own holiday with existing celebrations in order to assimilate the local Gaelic culture. When their descendants moved to America and elsewhere abroad, these celebrations transformed even more. Despite its commercialization under modern capitalist society, Halloween still retains much of its fantastical character and fascination with unseen forces.



Ancestor altar at Mallow Rose Cottage.
Ancestor altar at Mallow Rose Cottage.

Trick or Treat?


Causing mischief and giving offerings have long been part of Halloween revelry. As with May Day at the opposite end of the year (also known by the Gaelic name Beltane, or Bealtaine), fire holds a powerful meaning in Samhain. Bonfires acquired their name from the ancient practice of burning the remaining bones after a ritual sacrifice and a feast. With the leaves piling up and vegetation drying out, the land provides much else to burn away.


Carving pumpkins for Halloween displays a combination of Indigenous and European practices. Native Americans were already farming gourds like the pumpkin across Turtle Island before colonization. Ripening on the vines in autumn, their natural growth cycle leads them to symbolize this time of year. British and Irish settlers brought over their tradition of carving faces into root vegetables like turnips, but apparently they took a preference to the iconic and aesthetically plump form of the pumpkin.


Sculpting jack-o-lanterns and enlivening them with candles makes a reference to the eerie phenomenon known as spook lights, or wil-o'-the-wisps, ignes fatui, and many other names around the world. Whether ghosts of the dead, spirits of nature, flaming swamp gas, or something else far beyond our wildest imaginations, they typically haunt wetlands and forests in the darkness of night. According to an old Irish legend, the trickster known as Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to ban him from Hell, thus condemning his soul to wander the Earth with a vegetable lantern and stir up trouble in the afterlife. Placing jack-o-lanterns outside the home can ward off malicious entities like Stingy Jack while providing a healthy meal for neighborhood wildlife. Similarly, lighting candles before dusk and placing them near windows and doorways can welcome spirits into the home.



Spooky forest tunnel of rhododendron and oak trees.
Spooky forest tunnel of rhododendron and oak trees.

Day of the Dead


During All Hallows Eve, the gates between the realms of the living and the dead open wide, allowing otherwise fleeting entities to wander the world at will. With the bountiful harvest of crops and autumn colors at their peak, such a sublime atmosphere might present the ideal conditions for apparitions to manifest and nightmares to become reality.


Christians celebrate All Souls Day on November 1 to remember deceased loved ones and saints. Some people visit the cemeteries where their family members rest underground to place flowers, candles, and other offerings. For those who practice magick, the night before allows for enhanced divination and spirit communication. Venerating ancestors can include arranging their photos or heirlooms on the altar, remembering them again through stories, or even talking with them. Spirit boards, pendulums, crystal balls, candles, and white noise have a long history of use in necromancy, but digital technology can also open the channels for conversation.


Halloween is a day to open your mind to change and new possibilities, casting away the haunting elements of your past in preparation for colder and darker months ahead.



October sunset at Riverside Cemetery, Asheville.
October sunset at Riverside Cemetery, Asheville.


Comments


bottom of page