To Light a Flaming Pumpkin: The Inexact Art of Family Ritual

Our bounty is in
the myriad small adventures
of everyday.
We tell of magic
and moonrise
and listening to the pulse
of the earth beneath our feet.

Ah, October. Fall has settled into the trees and air. As the sun was setting and the full moon was rising, my family stood together in the dim light on our back deck, lit a fire in a hollowed out pumpkin and offered handfuls of herbs into the flames as we celebrated our blessings, our harvests, and our bounty, as a family and as individuals. As we spoke aloud our blessings and our bounty, our words got deeper, broader, and more authentic. My twelve year old son stepped forward to say how thankful he is that he gets to live with his best friend, his fifteen year old brother, and they embraced over the flaming pumpkin. My fifteen year old son offered his thanks for a family that has “cool rituals like this” and my four year son offered his blessings for the “energy we feel together.” My seven year old daughter offered her gratitude for pandas and for toys.

The next week, we returned the seeds to the pumpkin and released it to the outdoors to grow next year.

Sixteen years ago, I held my first Winter Solstice ritual. I wrote my wish for a baby onto a small piece of paper and rolled it up into a “seed” of my dreams that I planted within a special wooden box. On the autumn equinox the following year, I gave birth to my first child, a son who now stands inches above me, but who joins hands with his family each month to sing “Dance in the Circle of Moonlight” together on the back deck under the full moon.

After having this first baby, it became increasingly important to me that we celebrate holidays and traditions that reflect our spiritual values and worldview rather than the packaged version of the holidays offered by society, or the religious observances of dominant faiths that do not match our own. While we have celebrated the wheel of the year together in a variety of ways in fifteen years of parenting, it hasn’t been until this year that I feel I’ve finally truly hit my stride in planning fulfilling, nourishing family rituals. Perhaps it is because I am no longer trying to juggle nursing a baby or changing a diaper while simultaneously also guiding a ceremony. Perhaps it is because I’ve loosened up and accepted the myriad imperfections possible within a multi-age celebration. Perhaps it is because when one of the children wanders off during circle or interrupts me while I’m talking, I accept it as part of the flow, and continue our work without breaking my stride. Perhaps it is because I now laugh too when someone makes a joke during my careful ritual, and continue to roll with it, instead of feeling like it is disrespectful. Perhaps it is because I consider a 15-20 minutes family ritual perfectly sufficient instead of trying to plan for a full-fledged, retreat-style “program” of activities. Perhaps it is because we’ve joined hands in family circle in so many ways and for so many years that we all now trust that I’m not giving up on doing this together.

This year we’ve anointed one another’s foreheads with fragrant oils while standing in the freezing water of a freshwater stream. We’ve felt the raindrops kiss our faces and the rays of the sun peek in and out of the clouds as we celebrate the summer solstice by releasing wildflowers into the river. We’ve howled at the moon together, built a green man face from leaves, stones, and sticks in the field, created flower mandalas, thrown pinches of cornmeal into the woods as a symbolic sacrifice, soaked our feet in warm water laced with rose petals and then massaged one another’s feet with lotion, walked through a spiral of candlelight, and offered handfuls of herbs into a flaming pumpkin.

As we notice the changing seasons and honor the call of nature within our lives through ceremony, celebration, and song, we make visible the interconnected dance of life. We reaffirm our commitment, our relatedness, to each other and to the natural environment around us. We communicate with and are in relationship to that larger force of life and spirit that we call Goddess. And, we bring our spiritual beliefs into our bodies, hands, minds, and hearts in an ever-spinning Wheel of celebration, attention, observation, enjoyment, communion, and love.

 “We can think of ritual as the container we weave in which we can be carried away by magic and ecstasy.”

—Starhawk and Valentine, The Twelve Wild Swans

This article is excerpted from our free October Magic ritual kit, available here.


Here’s a simple outline for a family Samhain celebration:

  • Group hum/centering: an element common to each circle I priestess, whether family or larger, this practice quite literally brings each member of the circle into resonance with the group. We practice by placing our hands on one another’s backs and taking a few deep breaths together, usually while I guide us through a few words about releasing other thoughts, worries, or ideas we’ve brought with us to the ritual and just bringing ourselves fully into this moment together, sharing space with one another. We then hum together three times, to unify our energy and bring us together into ritual space. This shared hum truly does bring you into harmony with one another. I find this to be a very connected and simple means of casting a circle with our own bodies and physical energy. We usually hum in unison three times. With kids, sometimes it is not in unison and my eyes meet my husband’s over their heads in an effort to stifle laughter at the discordant chorus we create.
  • Invocation using the body (this works well for kids because it is physically involved and interactive, rather than just listening):

    Turn to the south, the element of fire, and rub your hands together, feeling the heat generated by your own body. Take your warm hands and place them on your heart, letting the heat sink into you. Feel how Fire lives in you.All say: Welcome fire, welcome south.

    Turn to the west, the element of water, and lick your lips. Look at your wrist, at the blue tracing of veins in your arm mirroring the pattern of the rivers running to the sea. Feel and appreciate the waters of your own body and how they are connected to the waters around the world. Feel how Water lives in you.

    Welcome water, welcome west.

    Turn to the north, the element of earth, and feel the strength and stability of your own body, connected to the earth. Stomp your feet on the ground. Pat your hands against your thighs, feeling your strong legs and the presence of your own body, here on the body of the earth. Turn to the person next to you and give them a hug, feeling their solid presence. Feel how Earth lives in you.

    Welcome earth, welcome north.

    Turn to the east, element of air, and take a deep breath in unison, inhale, exhale, feeling the breath of life in your body. Puff your breath out or take a deep sigh. Feel how Air lives in you.

    Welcome air, welcome east.

  • Light pumpkin (to prepare in advance, make sure you’ve cut the top off the pumpkin and hollowed out the seeds—keep the seeds to plant with the remnants of your fire later. You may start the fire with paper and a lighter and then keep adding herbs to keep it burning, or you may stoke it by putting some alcohol in the bottom of the pumpkin to begin with. Alcohol burns cool and can create a longer lasting, less smoky flaming pumpkin.
  • Offer your bounty with herbs sprinkles/handfuls—these can be spontaneous spoken aloud declarations of your harvest, your celebrations, your gratitude, etc. What are you thankful for?
  • Optional: offer any sacrifices/releasing on slips of paper into the flames
  • Sing: Samhain is Here, Hallowed Evening, or Dance in a Circle of Moonlight
  • Closing prayer (to close our rituals, my family always joins hands and says the following prayer in unison. You might choose a different prayer or choose to speak a blessing spontaneously based on the mood, energy, and events of the evening):

May Goddess bless and keep us.
May wisdom dwell within us.
May we create peace.

(Carol Christ in She Who Changes)

Song Lyrics:

  • Samhain is Here, adapted from Gathered Here in the UU Hymnal Singing the Living Tradition:

Gathered here
in the mystery of the hour
gathered here
in one strong body.
Gathered here
in the struggle
and the power.
Samhain is here.
Samhain is here.

Dance in a Circle of Moonlight
Make a web of my life
Hold me as I spiral and spin
Make a web of my life

  • Hallowed Evening (by my kids and me)

Hallowed evening
Hallowed night
We dance in the shadows
We offer our light.

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