For the last five years, I have created an Ancestor Altar around the season of Samhain (pronounced sow-wain.) Samhain begins on October 31st and lasts about six weeks. I am often moved by the moon to signal the timing of assembling my ancestor altar. This year 2022, the new moon of October is on October 25th and I often do not want to mix ancestors with the secular holiday Halloween. It feels a little disrespectful to have playful and fun Halloween decorations up when my ancestor altar is up.
When you decide to erect your ancestor altar is a personal preference, and you may mix Halloween and Samhain gleefully. Since these two events feel better separated for me, I would look to the next moon event which is on November 8th. This is the full moon and a lunar eclipse, which can be a very magical time! I will likely take some time to put away Halloween and be sure that my ancestor altar is up by Sunday, November 6th.
Who goes on your ancestor altar? The next thing to consider is who you will invite to your ancestral altar. You may have relatives that you do not want to celebrate and that is certainly understandable. You do not have to have anyone you do not want on YOUR altar.
These honored people also do not have to be blood relatives. You can include friends that have been important to you and even authors that you appreciate. Anyone can be on your ancestor altar if you want to honor them. It is wise to be discerning, as you are inviting a spirit into your home. Part of the season we create an ancestor altar, is to interact conscientiously, with those who have departed.
How do you honor the ancestors? One way to honor these people is to display pictures of them. You can tell stories about them. You can make offerings at your ancestor altar, with items such as food or drinks. I often share coffee with lots of sugar and cream for my relatives. Sometimes I feel a call to offer a small glass of whiskey (my grandmother's favorite drink.) I offer cookies, chocolate, and other sweet treats. Store bought or homemade, it doesn't matter unless it mattered to your ancestors. They love it when we cook for them, or at least my people appreciate it. Sometimes we offer a seat at the table and serve that plate, the best portions of food. Once I feel as though the spirits have enjoyed the meal or treats, I dispose of the food into the earth, burying them in the backyard or composting it.
I love to light candles in the evening on my ancestor altar. It feel as though I am caring for them by lighting these candles. I use candle holders passed down to me from my Mother's Mother. I use a table clothes from my Father's Mother, one that she had embroidered or maybe one she inherited from her relatives. I use the china plates I received from my Grandmothers. You do not need to have these heirloom items as many younger people, find no use or have no space to store such things. I would suggest that you use your finest candles, plates and cups. The energy that is held in these everyday items and your care in using them is what is important.
I prefer to use photos of my relatives when they were in their prime years, although I only have pictures of my grandfather as an old man. He did not have photos taken of him until he was in the later years of his life, due to living in poverty and the transient conditions in his youth. I found some of my photos online and I also asked distant cousins for copies of photos of our mutual ancestors.
And when should you put away my ancestor altar? Since I do not have an active ancestral veneration practice that was passed down the generations in my family, I have had to discover my proper timing on my own. It seems like the whole month of November, feels good to me. It is harvest season and gratitude abounds. I am not usually eager to transition into Winter Solstice (or Christmas, really) season. As we move more into December, I feel the desire to work with my ancestor altar wain. I love having my ancestor altar up around Thanksgiving, being the season of gratitude. In recent years, I do not enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving, given its colonial history and our new understanding of its racist and distorted view of this historical period.
However you decide to honor your ancestors this season, I am sure they will appreciate it. Use your intuition when deciding on your new traditions, if you have no compass or familial traditions to reference. Once upon a time, we probably all honored our ancestors. Do what nourishes you.
Karin Olsen is a healer, a seer and a teacher. She has been studying plants for more than 20 years, owning a herb shop and metaphysical store for 15 years. She has been a massage therapist for over 25 years. Karin learned her psychic medium skills from her mother and see clients via zoom. She teaches classes on earth-based spirituality through Moonhill Mystery School in the Salish Sea area. In 2021 she earned a Master of Ecopsychology from Naropa University.