Why I No Longer Set Up Ancestor Altars at Halloween

Halloween, Scorpio season, Samhain, All Soul’s Day…

No matter what you name this time of year, ancestors become a popular theme about now.

It is believed the veil is at its thinnest these days, and that the spirits around us are close. People build altars to honour the dead. We burn candles for our ancestors, maybe leaving out their photographs or favourite libations in remembrance.

Maybe you already have an ancestral practice for this time of year. Maybe you’ve only heard bits and pieces of these ideas, your curiosity piqued by beautiful altar photos on Instagram or blog posts that offer some quick tips about ancestral work.

I used to follow all of that advice. Each October, when the Sun moved into Scorpio, I would start to set up an ancestor altar. I would adorn it with candles and mementoes, photographs and seasonal offerings.

And then, as we got into mid-November and Halloween had come and gone, I had no idea what to do with that altar.

So I would disassemble it and wait until the next year to create a new one.

It didn’t help that I had a vague idea of who I thought my ancestors were, let alone any clue as to what kind of relationship I wanted to have with them.

What does it mean to honour the ancestors?

What does it mean to work with them?

What does it mean to make them part of a spiritual practice?

Those were questions I had to admit I didn’t know how to answer throughout the rest of the year. And so once my ancestor altar was put away, so were my relationships with my deceased.

And then I met one of my mentors, Ingrid Kincaid. The first thing she said to me was, “Where are you from? Who are your people? You are not rooted with them.”

She was talking about my ancestors.

I sat with those questions for some time.

They led me to learn more about my own ancestry: Where do I come from? Where do my roots begin? Who had to exist before me?

I realized I wanted a deeper relationship with my ancestors, and honouring them just once a year was not enough to establish that relationship.

And so I made space in my home for a dedicated ancestor altar that I can sit at regularly. It is kept fresh with daily offerings, and adorned with candles, photographs, and objects that represent those who came before me.

If you feel called to connect with your ancestors, too, here are some tips I’ve put together based on my own practices:

1. Define who your ancestors are, and what ancestry means to you. 

For me, the term ancestors is quite broad. I think of it as something that encompasses:

- My genetic ancestry – lineage and bloodlines;
- My remembered dead – relatives who I knew personally who have passed on; and
- My adopted ancestors – muses, artists, and individuals who I consider part of my personal history. People whose work I feel down into my bones.

(Side note: One game-changer for me in connecting more with my lineage was doing an ancestry DNA test.)

2. Set up a dedicated altar space for your ancestors. An altar doesn’t have to be fancy or take up a lot of room – it can be a seat at your kitchen table, a spot on a bookshelf, or even a shoebox.

Think of your ancestor altar as a place where you will care for and feed your ancestors, no matter what that term means to you. Leave simple offerings, such a fresh glass of water daily.

I like to make a cup of tea for my ancestors each morning.

Some people like to have photographs on their ancestor altars. This is not a rule, however. If you do want images on your altar, you can also use pictures or relevant objects from the places your ancestors came from.

Get creative and build connections to your ancestry that feel strong for you.

3. Research the folklore or spirituality of your ancestors. Having an ancestral practice requires us to think beyond recent memory, and recent history, so do some digging:

Look up old legends, or learn about old deities that were honoured on their land. Research the mythology and cosmology of the places your ancestors came from.

Use those myths to speak to your ancestors. Light a candle at your altar, and read them a myth, a poem, or a prayer from an older time.

For example, in honouring my Irish ancestry, I have been reading old Irish myths and learning about traditional Irish witchcraft.

Feed your ancestors with the lore that once fed their imagination.

4. Build a practice that is sustainable for you.

This is really important. If you are going to start tending to an altar, think about how much time you have and how often you want to engage with that altar.

I like to read a myth or prayer to my ancestors once a month, usually on a Sunday afternoon. That’s very do-able for me. To make a tea each morning is nothing – I’m already making a coffee for myself then anyway.

Choose activities that will fit into your lifestyle and schedule on a longer-term basis.

Overly-complicated spiritual practices can start to feel like chores if you’re have the proper time to maintain them. Before you begin, ask: Can I see myself doing this six months to a year from now?

If you’re not sure, then simplify your plans.

If your goal is to build an ongoing relationship with your ancestors, then create a practice that you feel you can reliably uphold and commit to.

If you have already started an ancestral practice this season, think about how it can become a regular part of your life moving forward. Does it need to be changed or simplified to feel more manageable, or more suited to the energy of the lineage you want to connect with?

As you get into a routine with your ancestral devotion and build a relationship with your deceased, you may choose to sit at your altar and meditate with your ancestors. You can use that time to speak to them through divination, journaling, or prayer.

Give it time and see how your connection grows. Personalize your practice to make it reflective of you and your ancestry.

Until next time,

Liz xo


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