Witch's Broom

From Ceisiwr Serith's amazing book The Pagan Family.  Hard to find, but if you can, it's well worth it.


The Night of Remembering

The ancestors have been often ignored by Neo-Pagans. Perhaps it's that we have been enraptured by the Celts and have associated ancestor religion with Africa, China, and Japan. Or maybe it's because so many of us have seen our path as breaking away from our family's religion. Or maybe it's just that Wicca lacks an emphasis on the ancestors. It is indeed ironic that those of those who seek to revive the ways of our ancestors have thought so rarely of the Way of the Ancestors.

But the ancestors are who we are. Their genes live in us, their culture shapes our days, their signs are all around us. The land itself speaks of them. And on the night of Samhain itself it is only right that we should speak of them as well. Speak, and remember. For what the ancestors desire most of all, and what we need most to do, is to remember them.

The meal on this night should include pork, the sacred feast animal of Northern Europe and food of the dead; apples, fruit of the tree that grows in the Otherworld; and the dark bread that has been on the table for the first two nights.

Decorate the room with symbols of your ancestors. These can include:

  • Family trees
  • Flags, postcards, foods, statues, books, photographs, or other items from the countries of your ancestors.
  • Family heirlooms. These need not be anything fancy. A letter, a piece of clothing, a book -- anything from any ancestor. One of my favorite heirlooms is a hammer my grandfather used.
  • Photographs of ancestors.
  • Rubbings or photographs of gravestones


This is a case where a cluttered altar is called for. Many sources have poured themselves into us and the result is a complicated culture filled with complicated people. Make your altar just as complicated. For tools, jewelry, and clothes raid your heirlooms and the traditions of your ancestors' cultures.

Put images of your ancestors on the altar. If your household guardians are figures of your ancestors you will of course use them. If not, you could use masks made just for this rite, jack-o-lanterns, or ethnic symbols. Set a place for them in front of their images. Also put on the altar a candle for each relative who has died since last Samhain, plus an extra candle for all of your other ancestors. These candles can also be put in the window, to show the spirits the way to your home.

The oldest adult present presides this night.

Dress in dark clothes. This is the night of the Underworld, the Nightworld. Ordinarily we live in the day world, but this night we enter the world of the dark. The night world is the world of mystery, just like the world of death is. We cannot see what comes to us out of the dark.

Put the candles for the dead in front of the ancestral images. As you light each one that is being lit for a specific person, say that person's name. These candles should be lit by whomever in the family was closest to the person. After the candles are lit, the oldest adult says:

    "Tonight is the last night of Samhain, the Night of Remembering. 
    It is the feast of dark bread. 
    It is the feast of apples. 
    It is the feast of pork. 
    On this night 
    we welcome the spirits of our ancestors. 
    On this night
    we welcome you to our house. 
    We share our meal with you who have given us so much."

    Put a bit of every food at the meal on the ancestors' plate as it is served, before serving any family members.

    After the meal, clear the dinner dishes, except for the place of the ancestors. Put an apple, a pomegranate, a sharp knife, and a cup of dark wine or cider on the table. The wine or cider can be served mulled but cold by adding cloves and cinnamon sticks and soaking overnight. Stir or shake to mix the flavors before pouring. Pass the cup around. It may go either counter-clockwise (thereby going down to death) or from youngest to oldest (thereby approaching the ancestors.) Whichever way it goes, have it end up at the place of the ancestors.

    As each person receives the cup she recites her genealogy, women and girls in the female line and men and boys in the male line. Say:

    I am ( ), daughter of ( ), daughter of ( ).

    Go as far back as you know or as you wish. Include at least one ancestor who is dead. If you do not know the names of your ancestors, at the point that the line disappears say, "daughter of a woman unknown." After each person does this, she drinks a toast in the direction of the place of the ancestors. When everyone has spoken and the drink and food are at the place of the ancestors, someone says:

    We offer the cup of fellowship to the ancestors:
    They are dead but not gone. 
    We are all one people and tonight we eat and drink together once more.

    Someone else says:

    We are not the first
    We will not be the last
    We are not the river's source
    nor are we its end. 
    Life flows on from the ancestors
    through us and beyond. 
    Daily we are carried along as life streams on. 
    Tonight we turn and look upstream
    and honor our source 
    before turning again and plunging once more into life. 
    Tonight we remember our ancestors: 
    Gone but remembered
    Left but revered
    Away but near our hearts. 
    That which is remembered is still alive. 
    Those we remember are with us still. 
    We speak their names and remember.

    Then remember, saying their names. After each name, tell what you know about that person. If anyone has died since last Samhain, name them first. It is all right to call out the names of friends as well as family. We are one people.

    There are many ancestors you will not know, of course. Call them by what you do know; where they came from, or what their trade was, or their relationship with you. There are many of mine of whom I know nothing except a name. That isn't really much, but it is enough.

    Speak their names and remember them. When there are no more to remember, say:

    Ancestors going back into the darkness, 
    forgotten by history, 
    your lives unrecorded: 
    You who are unknown to us but who made us ourselves. 
    Don't be afraid: 
    You are not forgotten. 
    We remember you.

    And everyone says:

    We remember you.

    Then tell any of your people's stories that haven't yet been told. Tell stories of ancestors who have died. Tell the old myths of your people. Recite the genealogies. And when the stories have died away, sit in silence and remember. Don't be afraid to cry. Your tears will be an offering to them. Don't be ashamed not to cry. The remembering may bring you comfort without the need to cry.

    When the remembering has died away, someone says:

    Every day we will remember and every night when we sleep. 
    We will always remember and we will never forget. 
    These are our people and we remember them.

    If you have any messages you wish sent to your ancestors, especially ones you don't wish to say out loud, write them down on a piece of paper. Put the paper with incense on a burning piece of charcoal, or burn them in the flames of the candles of the ancestors. The smoke will take your messages to the ancestors for you.

    When all the talk is done and all the messages sent, the oldest adult says:

    The table of remembering is over but the Night of Remembering goes on. 
    But there is one thing more we still have to do. 
    For three days we have spoken of death: 
    of plants, of animals, of our ancestors. 
    But our way is life.

    He picks up the pomegranate and says:

    This is a fruit of life
    It is filled with many seeds
    But it was just these seeds that kept Persephone in the land of the dead. 
    So what does this fruit say to us? 
    It is life, whose shadow is death.

    He cuts it open. Then he holds up the apple and says:

    This is a fruit of death
    It grows in the Otherworld where our ancestors live, 
    where they are rested and refreshed, 
    which is thus called the Land of Apples.

    He cuts it through the middle horizontally and holds it up to show the star formed by the seed chambers. He says:

    But hidden inside is the star of rebirth. 
    So what does this fruit say to us? 
    It is death, whose shadow is life and promises rebirth.

    He holds them both out and says:

    Which is our way? 
    Which path are we on? 
    Are we on the path of death? 
    Or are we on the path of life?

    All: We are on the path of life.

    He puts the fruits down and passes the pomegranate around so everyone can have at least one seed. He puts the apple back together and puts it on the altar and says:

    And this is your path: 
    Death, with the promise of rebirth. 
    We say goodbye to you for now
    as you go your way and we go ours.

    Blow out the candles and share the pomegranate