Ancestor altars are a very common way of recognizing Samhain, as the holiday’s most important purpose is honoring those passed on in the previous year and welcoming home both the loved ones of your immediate family as well as those far back in your history. Although there are other aspects to Samhain, family really is the focus in many ways.
If you have a closely connected family, ancestor altars are easy. The simplest way to set them up is by displaying old photographs, often found in antique albums buried deep in attics. In my house, there are always old photos mixed in with those from my childhood and recent years. It is important, after all, to remember your ancestors at all times of the year; Samhain is just one day when we take time out specifically for them (think of it sort of like Mother’s Day – they are always important and we always love them, but this is their special day!)
My favorite ancestor altar idea, however, is to use family heirlooms. Probably 75% of our house came from family (you can stand in the living room and count over 20 objects and pieces of furniture that came from at least my grandparents if not further back) but Samhain is the perfect time to really show those items off. Simply designate a shelf, desk, coffee table or other surface in the living space to cluster your family photos (even those of the living) and heirlooms on. They often make a lovely little display and, if you are in the closet, are easy to have out in the open.
Now, if your family isn’t like mine, you may not have access to photos and heirlooms but that doesn’t make your heritage any less a part of you. Decorate your altar with symbols of your heritage such as tartans, traditional artwork and family crests.
You can also honor your family members by setting a place for a lost loved one at Samhain dinner, hosting a dumb supper or telling stories around the bonfire!