The Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), or Samhuinn (as some Druid groups call it) is the Celtic New Year’s Eve. It is celebrated from sunset on October 31 to sunset on 1 November. The Welsh call it Calan Gaef or Nos Galan Gaeof.

Samhain was the end of the summer season and the beginning of the winter season for the Celts. Samhain marks the end and beginning of the Sacred Year for both Wiccans and Druids. For the Order of Paladins it is New Years Day and the beginning of the Shield Season, the beginning of winter, a season of earth which includes Yule, the winter solstice. Samhain is marked by the rising of the constellation of the Pleiades, which is to be found in the constellation Taurus. The setting and rising of the Pleiades are festivals celebrated in diverse cultures all around the world, marking the beginning and ending of the fishing and hunting seasons.

The Shield Season is winter, a season of waiting and preparation. This is the season where our ancestors tightened their belts and hoped to make it through to the spring. Knights are encouraged in this Season to remember that the Gods cannot help those who will not help themselves. This time of year presents lots of opportunities for us to practice humility and lend a hand to others, as the Order of Paladins’ Code of Chivalry requires. This is when the harvest is brought in and processed to preserve this food for the winter seasons ahead. In fact the Order teaches its students how to preserve food by processes such as canning. For the ancient Celts it was time to cull the herds, leaving only breeding stock, cure or salt the meat. Dropping temperatures and increasing precipitation reducing roadways to quagmires made it next to impossible for warriors to mount any kind of offensive actions. The focus switched to defense. This is the time of year that ancient warriors withdrew within the walls of their winter quarters, manning ramparts of their defenses for the cold season ahead. It was a time of truce for the Celtic tribes, when councils were held, legal judgments passed and agreements made.

This is why the Order of Paladins calls this the Shield Season. It is time to repair and refurbish weapons, burnish skills and plan for the season ahead. Like our ancestors, in this season in the modern world we are increasingly forced indoors in this season by inclement weather. Knights are confined indoors must find ways to amuse themselves and keep in shape. Thus it is the season that members of the Order of Paladins remember the precept: Be creative! As the season confines us in close quarters it is a time to extend courtesy to others, as called for in our Code of Chivalry.

Of course the modern gardener has technology that our ancient forebears did not, and the Order of Paladins has a very active garden, including composters and a solar greenhouse. And so, for us, the Shield Season is a time to plant flowers such as aster, begonia, fuchsia, gardenia, impatiens, pansy, or sweet pea that you want to have bloom in the spring as well as vegetables like lettuce and cabbage that do well in cool weather. So being confined to the greenhouse doesn’t mean that we aren’t still very busy ending the greenhouse, garden and compost.

The Shield Season is when the training cycle for the Novices of the Order of Paladins begins. This is where they begin to learn what it means to be a knight and are introduced to the precepts and codes that define who we are. This is when we show them what energy feels like, and teach them to sense the way it is flowing with both mental and physical push-pull exercises like Hubud Lubud. Being the Shield Season, it is appropriate that this be the time when then learn how to shield themselves from negative energy and grounding out negative energy. They learn to “swim” through the currents of energy around them. Here is when the novice starts to learn how to move energy and contain it.

As the beginning of the Shield Season is when the veils to the Otherworld grow thin, this is also an appropriate time for the novice to start to realize their connection to divinity and to their ancestors, as I discussed at the beginning of this book. This is where the novices start to experiment with creating deities. This is the season when the novice starts their Book of Shadows that will be a journal of their progress and successes.

As Samhain is our New Years celebration, it is a time to make resolutions and plans for action for the coming year. Samhain is when knights commit to resolutions and objectives for the next cycle of the seasons. These may be based on the insights that we gained through divination in the preceding Cauldron Season (more on this later). For example, I resolved to found the original order of knights at Samhain 2007 and the Order of Paladins at Samhain in 2013.

This is both the beginning of a new year and the ending of the old. Last year’s novices have gone through the cycles of training and last Beltaine experienced the Armoring ritual that made them squires. Having passed through the full cycle of the four Seasons, they are now approaching the ritual that will initiate them into knighthood: The Arming. The Arming is normally scheduled in the days immediately following the Samhain celebration. Having made their resolutions, the squires take their oath of knighthood and go forward to carry them out.

Samhain is a harvest festival, celebrating the Last Harvest. Our ancestors believed that all of the crops had to be harvested before Samhain. Anything left in the fields after Samhain was considered to be either blasted by the puca or to be the property of the puca. So traditionally, anything edible in the outdoors garden of our Motherhouse is harvested before Samhain. From this point on into the coming weeks we are cleaning up the garden and preparing it for winter.

To the Celts, Samhain was also the turning of the year, a time at which the barriers between the worlds of life and death were believed to be as thin as veils. For this reason we believe that spirits of the departed return to be welcomed by their kin and to celebrate with them at Samhain. It was a time to honor those who have gone before us, not to fear them. Samhain is a Feast of the Dead: A feast honoring the ancestors and the Sidhe in the name of the Lord of the House of the Dead who brings us peace, rest and reunion with our ancestors at the end of life, and to the Old Woman of Death that brings us rebirth. The knight honors the Dead: We see the Ancestors as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dead are honored and feasted, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and of guardians who watch over us. Samhain is a time to communicate with the ancestors to see if they have any wisdom to impart to us. Their achievements can inspire ours. Of course, not all of our ancestors were noble or wise, but by learning about them we can learn their mistakes and seek to avoid those mistakes in our lives.

To honor the Dead, we serve a traditional Samhain feast called a “Dumb Supper” at which strict silence is observed. A place is set at the table for the spirits of the ancestors. If you’ve got jewelry that belonged to your ancestors, Samhain is the time to wear it. This is derived from an ancient Celtic practice in which food and drink was set out for the spirits of the departed. We do this also, to honor the dear departed at Samhain and to honor the harvest just completed. We’ll set up an ancestor altar with pictures and memorabilia to pay homage to those we loved and lost. We’ll decorate the Motherhouse with a harvest motif. In many parts of Britain Soul Cakes were the offerings left at this special place at the table or on the graves of the dead. Other traditional offerings include:

• Apples: Sacred to the Goddess, containing the five pointed star or pentagram, as I pointed out earlier. It is a fruit of wisdom and rebirth.

• Pork: Considered to be the food of the Gods by the ancient Celts.

• Hazelnuts: A tree traditionally connected to Witches and magick.

• Pomegranate: The fruit of death and rebirth, appearing in the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Its red juices resemble blood which is probably why the ancients made this connection.

Samhain is one of the two great fire festivals of the Celtic peoples, the other being Beltaine. Bonfires were lit all over the Celtic world at Samhain. The term “bonfire” is derived from the ancient farming practice of collecting the bones of livestock slaughtered for food and burning them in fires, the fires being called “bone fires” and later “bonfires”. In many parts of Britain these fires were known as “Teanlas”, “Teanlay”, “Tindles” or “Tandles”. Farmers would carry aloft pitch forks of flaming straw, burning splinters or smouldering brands from these fires and carry them around to bless the fields. Carrying a torch or a flame around your property at Samhain is still a common Pagan blessing these days. When I was a child in North Vancouver, British Columbia, I recall my father, who hailed from London, England, lighting a bonfire at Halloween and burning a scarecrow effigy of Guy Fawkes. He also put on an elaborate fireworks display. These were practices incorporated into Halloween customs from the famous Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and his associates tried to blow up the British Parliament on 5 November 1605. In my mind the fireworks fit in well with the fire festival theme of this Pagan holiday. The ritual room at Paladins’ original Motherhouse had a fireplace in the south wall where we could kindle a Samhain blaze. My current place of residence has a wood stove in the south end of the living room.

The “Trick or Treat” custom that is customary in North America these days at Halloween comes from the ancient custom of guising from Ireland and Scotland. Guising consists of a procession of horn-blowing youths going from house to house fantastically dressed, collecting money or gifts of food. A related custom was “Hodening” of “Hoodening”. A man would bear a horse’s skull (or wooden horse’s head) on a pole. The jaws of the horse’s head were often wired and made to snap open and shut. Some of these horse skulls had candles inside them to cast an eerie light. The man bearing the skull covered himself with a stable blanket or sheet. This “Hooden Horse” would go from house to house accompanied by “soulers” who sang traditional seasonal songs. The horse is a symbol of Celtic Goddesses like Epona and Rhiannon.

We’ve got a carved horse head on a pole that we use for our Hoodening. The Order of Paladins is a family oriented tradition, and our kids like to participate in souling. They can go door to door with the other kids and the neighbors can’t tell the difference. Back at the Motherhouse we can bring out the Hooden Horse and do the souling procession and singing traditional souling songs. One traditional Shropshire souler’s song listed in Christine Hole’s British Folk Customs (pg.187) goes like this (once I adapted it by removing references to St. Peter and St. Paul):

“Soul! Soul! For a soul-cake!

I pray you, good missis, a soul-cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,

Or any good thing to make us all merry.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan.

Give us good alms, and we’ll be gone”.

Another one that we adapted from Hole’s book (pg. 188), this one from Staffordshire, goes like this:

“Soul Day! Soul Day!

“We’ve been remembering the souls departed;

So pray, good people, give us a cake,

For we are all poor people, well known to you before,

So give us a cake for charity’s sake,

And our blessing we’ll leave at your door.”

As I mentioned earlier, as is traditional in Souling customs, the Order of Paladins serves special cakes called “Soul cakes”, “Saumas cakes”, “Soulmas cakes”, “Dole cakes” or “Dirge Loaves” at our Dumb Supper. Soul cakes were traditionally handed out to soulers.

It wouldn’t be Samhain without Jack O Lanterns. These were originally called punkies, which is why one of the colloquial names for Halloween in Sommerset is “Punkie Night.” Punkies are simply candle lanterns made from hollowed out gourds, turnips or cabbage stalks (called in Scotland a “custock”). Originally these weren’t decorated with faces, and the ones that I carve are not decorated with scary faces either. I’m trying to invite the spirits of the ancestors with my lantern. Instead they are carved with elaborate designs of animals, flowers, etc. Traditionally a candle was put inside and a cord run through the top to provide a handle. The children would go from door to door begging candles for their punkies. Here’s a traditional Punkie song from Hole’s book (pg. 162) that we adapted by replacing a reference to Adam and Eve in the original with lines invoking the ancestors:

“It’s Punkie Night tonight.

Give us a candle, give us a light,

If you don’t, you’ll get a fright.

It’s Punkie Night tonight.

A candle to light, bring the ancestors tonight

It’s Punkie Night tonight.”

The flame in each of the punkies represented the spirits of the departed that are remembered on Samhain. All over Europe it was customary on Samhain to leave lighted candles in the windows to guide the spirits of departed relatives back to visit their living kin. The Celts believed that the flames in their lanterns represented the spirits of their dear departed relatives. The modern practice of carving faces into them was probably originally an extension of this belief.

A form of candle magick that we include in our Samhain rituals involves divination for the living. It is derived from an old North Lancashire tradition called “Lating the Witches”: You carry a lit candle in a procession outdoors between eleven PM and midnight. If the candle remains lit then the person that it had been lit for is safe for the coming year. However if it goes out, then precautions must be taken as misfortune might be expected. Another form of candle magick involves placing twelve candles in a ring on the floor. People jump the candles in turn, each candle representing a month of the year. If one goes out when a person jumps over it, this indicates that misfortune could befall that person in that month.

Another ancient divinatory custom that we observe involves hiding charms in bowls of colcannon, champ or loaves of barm brack. Traditional charms used include a bean or a piece of cloth indicating poverty, a button for bachelorhood, a coin (traditionally a sixpenny piece wrapped in wax paper, but we use a penny wrapped in wax paper) indicating wealth or good luck, a matchstick for domestic violence, a gold ring for marriage, and a thimble for spinsterhood. You can add to this list, making up your own charms and meanings for each.

One system that we use for exploring our astral temple, Caer Paladin, consists of a series of small wooden disks with the Order of Paladins logo painted on one side and one of the thirteen principles of chivalry on the other: honor, sincerity, self-discipline, compassion, perseverance, truth, industriousness, justice, largesse, courage, humility, courtesy, and loyalty. These are put in a small cauldron. A second batch of small wooden disks has the logo of the Order of Paladins painted on one side and the name of one of the thirteen structures in Caer Paladin (other than the four elemental temples): Armory, Uranaikan, Zendo, Infirmary, Tabellarium, Forge, Cistin, Ancestor Shrine, Stabla, Scriptorium, Paladins Temple, Chashitsu, and the Central Altar. These are all put into a second small cauldron. You pick a disk from the first cauldron: This tells you the principle of chivalry that you need to work on. Then you take a disk from the second cauldron. This tells you where in Caer Paladin you need to go to work on this principle. It is an interesting, thought provoking, system that works really well. A variation of this involves reaching into a bag to draw out a card with a precept or principle of chivalry inscribed upon it.

In the past we’ve reenacted the Welsh myth of Pwyll and Arawn, with commandery members playing the part of Arawn, Pwyll, and Hafgan. The participants are told to identify things that they wish to defeat in their lives, as well as things they hope to accomplish. They are directed to a room symbolizing a battleground, a symbolic ford. They are told to go there, one by one, face what it is they wish to defeat, and symbolically defeat with one blow, just like Pwyll defeats Hafgan in the story with one blow. They are advised to commit this it to paper and seal it, and bring it back to the altar, where they set it in the cauldron there. Later these papers, the representing the remains of tehir battles, are burnt in the fire. Then each participant speaks their Song of Paladins, and speaks aloud their intentions for the coming year.

We decorate our altar with autumn flowers such as marigolds, dahlias and chrysanthemums. As this is the last harvest, we also decorate the altar with hazelnuts, apples, pomegranates, pumpkins, squashes and other late autumn fruits. On or by the altar we’ll have our cauldron as symbol of rebirth and renewal. On the altar we’ll have raven feathers representing the cloak or totem of the Morrighan or Cailleach. We’ll also have horn or antlers to represent male divinity such as Donn.

On our ancestor altar we’ll put pieces of paper and pens to write things you wish to banish from your life. The ideas is to let the negative stuff be burned away to leave room for the positive. In our ritual room we have a fire going in the fireplace in the south, and these pieces of paper are placed in this fire to burn. You could also have a fire in your cauldron or an outdoor bonfire and burn the pieces of paper in that.

If possible, you should place your ancestor altar in the west. You can hang a dark veil behind it, symbolizing the astral veil through which the ancestors come to visit from the afterlife. This ancestor altar is decorated with photos of the departed or memorabilia that bring them to mind. There is a communal vase on the altar into which people can place flowers for the departed. Votive candles are set to one side so that participants can take one and light it on the altar with a vocal or silent request for their relatives to join them. We also put a libation bowl on the altar so that participants can leave libations for their ancestors or for the puka.

Another room or place in the Motherhouse is set up for divination and scrying. Participants can skry for themselves or for others.

I’ve already mentioned some souling songs. Order of Paladins members will sing seasonal songs and recite poetry at Samhain gatherings. One that speaks to me at this time of year is John McCrae’s 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields, since it speaks about the sacrifice of warrior ancestors. We’ll call upon those who have passed into the house of Donn, the Summerland, or Tir Nan Og, to pass through the gates and join us. Each celebrant relates a story of the departed being remembered. Toasts are made to the departed. We tell them that we will one day dwell amongst them again and that we wait for their return. We’ll make toasts to those who died defending us. I remember my ancestor King Henry who fought at Agincourt at this time of year (25 October 1415 to be precise) and my ancestor King William, who fought at the Battle of Hastings (14 October 1066). We’ll include a toast to those unnamed, so no one is forgotten. This being the end of the harvest, we will give thanks to the animals and plants whose death has brought us life. We give thanks to the Gods who have let the departed be with us and who will guide them back safely. We give thanks to the Gods for giving our ancestors rest so that they may one day return.

Afterwards the celebrants retrieve their photos and memorabilia from the ancestor altar and take their votive candles home to burn for their ancestors and beloved dead. The ancestor altar candle is left to burn out. The offerings for ancestors, land spirits and deities are buried outside.