Maia Toll
“Am I doing this right? Will you tell me how you do ritual?”

I’m asked this all the time.

So this is it, the big reveal, your glimpse behind the curtain of my Samhain rituals:*

I woke to morning mist, a frisson in the air. The day had all the hallmarks of magical and I was determined to make the most of it.

First stop, Instagram (’cause that’s super-magical, right?). I found a great photo by Poppy Barach and quickly dictated this post:

Before I wax prolific on Samhain, I need to send you to check out Poppy Barach’s Instagram feed @poppybarach. The images are moody and nostalgic and so yummy…

…especially today as the veils thin and we slip into liminal space which, for me, lasts ‘til Winter solstice.

When I lived in Ireland, studying under a traditional healer, this day was pure magic. It felt like I became transparent and all the myths and stories of my being rose up through layers of self to be worn on my skin… like my cosmic insides became my outsides. I painted a black band over my eyes, wove feathers in my hair, and called the most ancient bird goddesses to cloak me in their grace.

There and then, in that place and that time out of time, it felt not like a costume but a revelation. We told stories into the night, set intentions into apple seeds (to be planted for the year to come), danced to the bodhrán (traditional Irish drum), and left heaping plates of sweets and shots of whiskey under the hawthorn for any spirits or ancestors abroad in the night…

By morning it was a dream, a passing fancy, dishes to do and crumbs on the floor…

But every year, on this day, the gates open and I once again hear the goddesses laughing.

It occurred to me, as it does every Samhain, that there was very little chance this Samhain was going to live up to that one. But this particular memory is precious.

I pull it out and dust it off year after year, because it reminds me of how we can slip, back and forth, from real time to mystical time, how we humans can become gods and goddesses for a night, how the spirit of the many overlapping worlds longs to move in us and through us.

I had no real plans for the evening, no bodhráns wallowing in the closet, no friends coming by for stories and craic.

Then this appeared in my Instagram feed (I told you it was magic):

riverislandapothecary Cool, so whiskey shots at your house tonight? I’m there!! 😆✨😇🕸✨🕸

Whiskey and craic— things were suddenly looking up!

The day went on, as days do. I ran about, getting ready for this weekend’s retreat, taking care of things for Witch Camp and Medicine Keepers, doing the usual doings of the day.

Shannon, my online community manager, messaged me:

shannon [12:19 PM]
Part of my job is bumbling around Facebook to spread witchy cheer…um, what did I do to deserve this life?!?

maia [12:21 PM]
I no longer have to bumble around on Facebook to spread witchy cheer. What did I do to deserve this life?

Which is not to disparage social media which, on this day, produced whiskey, craic, and what looks to be a kick-ass biscotti recipe.

The latter from a Witch Camper who shared her Nana’s recipe after she and I went back and forth about connecting with lineage and our ancestors through food. You can grab her recipe, which she was kind enough to share, below.

Talk of food got me thinking about my own evening and what would go well with whiskey. Did I have time to cook? Maybe something super-simple like apple cobbler… which was actually perfect since we ate apples, wishing on the seeds, as part of our Samhain celebration in Ireland, plus I had apples from my friend’s farm.

As I chopped the apples, I sent a bit of gratitude to my friend who grew the apples. My mind wandered to the ways in which food connects us, the similarities between Celtic culture and the Jewish cultures I grew up in, the prevalence of apples in world myth, my mother’s apple cake recipe… hey, is that really Grandma’s recipe? I decided to use real sugar, ’cause Grandma would have. And… I almost forgot… Grandma had a luncheonette. What did she cook there? I texted my mom.

And so the spirits began to creep closer, whispering of meals past and afternoons in the heat of the kitchen.

I love cooking a beautiful meal on Samhain, a meal which I share with the ancestors. I put out what I call a spirit plate— a bit of everything on the table— to honor those who came before.

What do they say? Man plans, God laughs?

Early in the evening the dogs— both of them— came down with some sort of stomach bug. The kind of stomach bug that means I’m making them rice and boiled turkey for dinner. Which really is no trouble… except that the gas cooktop has been glitchy and I’m cooking on a hotplate. A one burner hotplate.

All of a sudden I crossed that invisible line, the one which divides I can handle this from I’m losing my mind.

I texted Andrew pick up something for dinner.

Do spirits like take-out?

By the time our friends arrived we’d been fed, watered, and I’d regained my equilibrium. The cobbler was both tart and sweet and the whiskey smooth.

Around 10 pm we heaped a plate with cobbler, filled a mason jar with whiskey, and lit a few candles.

The moon was cresting the tree tops as we placed the plate on a flat stone next to the driveway, the whiskey nestled next to it and the candles propped in crevices between the rocks.

Ummmm… I said, I usually just send a silent call to my ancestors and any others who may be abroad tonight. And a thank you, definitely a thank you, to the spirits of this place.

We all stood in companionable silence for a few minutes.

When we’d returned inside, I turned to my friend: I hope you didn’t expect me to call the quarters or something. I really only do that when I’m alone, I confessed.

Me too! she said and we laughed with relief. The conversation turned to more comfortable things: witches in Romania; how to best teach about essential oils, scent, and divination; and a piece of property they’re thinking about buying.

Why am I telling you all this about my Samhain rituals?

Because we live in a world where people shout out their best and worst moments— their most dramatic times, each documented as though it were a magazine spread. But the truth is: most of life happens in between these extremes, a lot of it’s not particularly elegant or lyrical.

Even when I’ve had a particularly mystical day, there are still dishes to wash: first the magic, then the mopping.

So if you’re wondering if you did it right, if your Samhain was magical enough, I want to give you permission to just be real, to embrace both the magic and the mopping. Ritual doesn’t have to be picture perfect, it just has to leave you feeling a little more whole and a bit more connected.

Big hugs—

* Samhain is pronounced sow-when. It’s the ancient Celtic New Year and a mystical time of year when ancestors are honored and the spirits wander abroad.

P.S. Kim, one of my Witch Campers, honored her Nana by sharing this fabulous recipe with all of us. Download it by clicking Get the Recipe! Kim writes:

Nana’s Almond and Whiskey Biscotti

My Nana was the mother of 8, grandmother of 42 (I’m the oldest) and great Nana to 39 (my son the oldest). She was first generation Italian and taught all of us grandchildren how to cook, knit, crochet and sew. I’ve been thinking so hard about her the last few weeks and feeling her presence (she promised before she died to visit me in the kitchen 🤗) so I decided to make her biscotti recipe. It’s very time consuming but I promise your house will smell like a hug and your tummy will thank you.

Get the recipe!