Entertain for both the living… and the dead
Fall is officially upon us—as we speak, the leaves outside my window are turning orange and red, the evening winds are blowing cool, and the nights are growing significantly longer. Pretty soon, it’ll be the end of October, and the night of Halloween.
While the holiday is celebrated all around by the young and young-at-heart, the turning of October also marks a sacred season, one that’s rarely mentioned. Samhain (pronounced SAH-ween) means “Summer’s End”, and it honors the end of the harvest phase as well as ushering in the coldest months of the year. In Samhain, we remember and honor the dead through stories, graveyard visits, and ancestor altars or ofrendas, like for Dia de Muertos. Another excellent tradition observed on Samhain—and, as a hosting enthusiast, my absolute favorite tradition—is the Dumb Supper, or a way to entertain both the living and the dead.
The Dumb Supper, also known as the Mute Supper, is a dinner hosted for a close circle of family and friends, with our dearly departed loved ones as our guests of honor. It’s a silent meal, no one is allowed to speak, hence its name. With the changing of the season also comes a time when the veil between the spirit world and ours becomes the thinnest, and it is in complete silence where we may communicate to those who have gone before us. If we’re lucky, they may even communicate back.
Preparing for a Dumb Supper: Setting and Decorating the Table
Black is the color traditionally used for a Dumb Supper, so prepare your table with a back tablecloth, black dinnerware, and black candles. If you don’t have black china on hand, the next best thing is tableware in stark white (although black should be the predominant color on your tablescape). Consider using black charger plates, or stoneware for an elegant, minimalist touch. To set the right atmosphere, black candles and lanterns serve as the perfect source of light; tall, sleek candles add mystery and a soft glow, while skull-shaped candles are theme-appropriate and great for intimate settings.
If you have a fireplace, lighting a crackling fire will add to the coziness and atmosphere of the supper. Don’t forget to keep paper and pens on hand just in case your guests want to prepare last minute, private messages to throw into the hearth and into the realm beyond.
Drape a white or black cloth over the place at the head of the table. This should be left empty with a lit tea light on the setting for the guest of honor, while each living guest has one seat around the table. If your table is round, choose the northernmost seat as the head of the table. Light a tea light for each spirit you wish to communicate to (or honor), if, like me, you have more than one deceased loved one. For the finishing touch, place a bowl or cauldron close to the head of the table to catch the embers for the end of the Dumb Supper.
Food Preparation and Menu Planning
Samhain celebrates the beginning of fall and a bountiful harvest, so plan your meal accordingly to highlight autumnal crops—go all out, I personally love pumpkin soup, cinnamon apple pies, pot roast, soul cakes, and honey cakes! Consider serving mulled wine and apple cider for drinks. Corn on the cob, slices of pumpernickel or old-world bread, and nuts make for appealing appetizers as well. If you wish to honor the dead with a multicultural menu, choose dishes that are appropriate to the tradition. While there are so many amazing Día de Muertos recipes to choose from, there are also a ton of international dishes that are made from fall crops. For a more personal note, you can also prepare your ancestors’ favorite dishes to form a stronger connection.
Cleansing the Space and Host Duties
During the Dumb Supper the dining space is considered sacred for the duration of the meal, so cleansing the space is very important. Start by burning white sage, Santo Palo, or sandalwood, or if you have none of these on hand, place a circle of salt around the table. Another alternative which I’ve also used previously is to cast a circle of cleansing and protection with a quick “Hekas, hekas este Bebeloi” spell to banish evil spirits.
With the delicate nature of the Dumb Supper, it’s also very important to prepare your guests for the experience. Advise your guests about the dinner rules for silence (please remind them to put their phones on silent, and any other rules one observes when they attend a play or a movie, since there’s nothing worse than being distracted by a text message). Have them come prepared with notes reserved for the deceased, and to bring photographs and/or mementos to place near the head of the table.
Summon the living—and the dead—by ringing a bell. The guests must make their way to their seat by passing the place of honor, all while offering their prayers silently for the deceased. Once everyone is gathered, join hands and say grace in silence to bless the meal.
Since communication will be a no-no during the supper, playing hostess may be a little tricky. Ensure that your guests’ needs, from the salt and pepper to the butter and so on and so forth, will be accessible and available to everyone without the need to ask around for it. Another little tip that I have is setting up a beverage station beside the table for easy access to all your guests.
As the host, sit at the opposite of the head of the table. Serve the food from oldest to youngest—don’t neglect serving the spirits either, and take in consideration their ages as well.
Just as a side note, I highly advise leaving children under the age of 15 out of this. They may not be able to process what’s going on, and could end up bored, spooked, or disruptive. As such, this is definitely a Halloween tradition reserved for the adults in my life.
At the end of the meal, each guest must take their note for the deceased and go to the head of the table. With the flame of the tea light representing their dearly departed, they must burn the note and place the embers in the prepared bowl or cauldron.
Once everyone is done, ring the bell to signify the end of the meal, but don’t forget to join hands for one last prayer for the deceased. My favorite part (which is technically not a part of the supper) is finishing up in the living room, where you can reminisce with your guests over fond memories of loved ones.
To clean up, the food and drink at the head of the table can be used later on, left outside for nature, buried in soil, or burnt as even more offerings.