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Reflecting Through the Veil: An Ancestor Altar Retrospective

The creation of an ancestor altar can become a bridge across time, a place of convergence where memory meets the mystical, and the echoes of our lineage speak with clarity and warmth.

With the enigmatic whisper of the veil thinning between our world and the spirit realm during Samhain, many of us felt drawn to honor those who walked the path before us. One way to do that is by creating an ancestor altar.

As I stood before my ancestor altar this year, the air was rich with the smoky scent of incense mingled with the faint, sweet sharpness of whiskey, an offering of peace and communion.

Each photograph that I chose to display captured a moment in time and seemed to pulse with life. My great-grandfather’s eyes reflected the flicker of candlelight that danced across the mantle, and the candles in my fireplace illuminated the face of The Watchman who protects my home.

The chime of the bell pierced the silence, a clear, resonant call that felt as though it reached beyond the veil, inviting spirits to draw near. The touch of cool quartz and the symbolic raven offered a tactile connection to the spiritual, grounding the ethereal experience in the physical world.

This Samhain, my altar was not just a static shrine but a dynamic gateway to the past, rekindling the bonds between the living and the dead.

My Ancestor Altar—Samhain 2023
My great-grandfather is the centerpiece of my ancestor altar. Photos of my loved ones gaze out from the past, surrounded by keepsakes, mementos, and tokens—a crystal raven symbolizing the messenger between worlds, smoky quartz grounding energies, and a bell whose clear tone may summon attention across dimensions.

Reflections and Offerings: The Essence of Ancestor Altars

Ancestor altars are unique and intimate reflections of the lives they honor and the ones who honor them, with each element chosen for its personal or spiritual significance.

This year, my ancestor altar found its place upon the warm hearth and mantle of my fireplace—a collection of visual memories, sentimental keepsakes, and spiritual tokens interspersed with offerings of herbs, a thimble of whiskey, and aromatic incense to honor the ancestors and to cater to the senses they once cherished.

The decision to elevate my altar to the largest and most central space in my home was deliberate, an endeavor to soften the stark line drawn by death and craft a thoroughfare for those who’ve left the physical plane yet still reach out for a thread of connection to the living.

“The hearth is the heart of the home.”

~ Traditional Proverb

Setting up an ancestor altar in this practice, especially during the mystical time of Samhain, serves multiple spiritual purposes.

It’s a Time Capsule for the Living and the Departed

Each object and each picture can become a portal, inviting us to traverse the lineage of our past to share the narratives embedded within the relics of our forebears.

  • What was it like for my great-grandfather to grow up in the late 1800s and become a man in the 1910s? Was he happy living the life of a farmer in a tiny rural town in New Jersey? Was the photo of him taken before or after he married my great-grandmother?
  • How did my granddad, a company clerk in the army, feel when he was awarded the Bronze Star during WW2? How did his dad feel? When he was in the army, what were his hopes and dreams? Did he know that he would be married and have children just a few short years later?
  • Do the snapshots taken of my dad, aunt, and grandmom at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1962 reflect who they were as people, as a family? What was my dad like as a teenage boy? What would he have been like if he had not gotten married and had children?

For the spirits, it serves as a beacon, a gathering place, and a signal that they are not forgotten, that their stories and essence are still very much alive and celebrated.

It’s a Portal of Release and Welcome

The act of curating this sacred space can unleash waves of emotional release, offering forgiveness and closure, as though the closeness to our ancestors grants us the strength to let go of longstanding weights.

As part of my ritual, I thought about each of the ancestors that I knew well and wrote down a few of my memories on cards … and not all of them were good. I ended up burning those cards as part of ongoing shadow work, choosing to let go of some of the hurt from my past and trusting that it remained in this world and that only their love for me was carried into the spiritual realm.

As we find solace and forgiveness in its creation, our ancestor altar also offers an inviting space for the spirits. The altar acts as a hospitable rest for those crossing the veil, allowing them a moment to dwell among their descendants and bask in the warmth of remembrance.

It’s a Crucible of Change and Recognition

This hallowed space invites transformation, urging us to cast away old grief and absorb the enduring wisdom that strengthens our personal growth. We’re not the only ones transformed by the presence of this sacred space; it’s also a testament to the spirits that their legacy continues to inspire change and growth.

  • What can we learn from our ancestors?
  • What do they want to tell us?
  • How would we like to be remembered when our photos are added to someone’s altar?

The altar acknowledges our ancestors’ enduring influence, granting them a revered place in the continuing story of their lineage.

Opening the Doors of Communication with an Ancestor Altar

The presence of an ancestor altar in one’s home during this time also opens the doors to heartfelt conversations. It invites questions and storytelling, connecting living family members with the ancestors they may have never met but whose legacy they carry on. For children and grandchildren, these stories stitch together the tapestry of their heritage, imparting wisdom, instilling values, and deepening their sense of belonging to a larger family narrative.

Each year, as the Witches’ New Year dawns, the practice of revisiting and refreshing the altar becomes a ritual in itself. It is a commitment to not only keep the memories alive but also to engage with them, learn from them, and allow the spirits of ancestors to guide us into the new year with their blessings and lessons.

Thus, an ancestor altar is not merely a fixture of Samhain but a living, breathing testament to our history. It’s a tradition that, when embraced, enriches our understanding of the past, informs our present, and illuminates our future.