Samhain is a Celtic celebration of the end of harvest season, and by extension we can see it as the spiritual observance of the sacredness of Endings in the cycle of life. Included in such celebrations are rituals for honoring The Ancestors, as those whose have come before us, and have contributed to the many blessings in our own lives -- indeed, to our very existence.
Growing up in a protestant household, though, none of this was present. Oh sure, grandparents were fondly remembered when viewing old photos or home movies, but that was it. Once someone was dead, they it was thought that they ceased to have any role in the lives of the living. It was close to blasphemy to think otherwise. How sad is this limited belief.
Yet, many spiritual traditions around the world have some form of honoring of The Ancestors. It is common in Asian cultures for ancestral altars to be present in homes. The Catholic church established All Hallows and All Souls days for remembrance of saints, martyrs and others. Holding perpetual respect for the Ancestors is one of the highest priorities in Native American spiritualities.
When we speak of "The Ancestors" whose relatives are we actually referring to? That probably depends on who you ask. In the most literal sense, they are of course all those who have contributed directly to your DNA. Research into your family tree can help you trace your ancestors sometimes back into bygone eras that can spark some interesting reading of history.
In the broader sense, The Ancestors would include more indirect relatives such as notable aunt, uncles, and cousins.
What if you are adopted and you don't know from whom you are descended? I don't think it matters. You still can honor The Ancestors as being all the persons of your ethnic or national origins, and perhaps of all humanity at large.
What does it mean to work with The Ancestors?
First, it means to believe that your own personal Ancestors take an interest in your life -- even if you don't know who they are. From this belief, you can grow in a sense of feeling guided and protected by loving souls who have your best interest at heart. Through meditation, you can learn to connect with your Ancestors individually or collectively. Or ask psychic mediums to help you do so.
Since The Ancestors can be a source of information normally thought of as intuition, one way of working with them is to set aside specific time to commune with them collectively, or with one or two specifically. Be sure to ground yourself first and install your psychic protections, then be specific about who you are calling in to talk with you. Using a pendulum, tarot cards, automatic writing, a ouija board or other spiritual tools can make the connection more clear.
Samhain Ancestor Rituals
If you belong to a Pagan circle, no doubt your tradition will hold a group ritual. But if you are on your own as a solitary spiritual practitioner you can create your own Samhain ritual. There are an unlimited number of things you could include in your ritual, and you could be formal or informal in how you do it. Here is what I suggest.
Start with casting a magickal circle for protection. Call forth the guardians of the 7 directions that you have ideally already established, whether you use angels or shamanic archetypal animal spirit guides. Then sit in the middle of the circle for the core of your ritual, which might focus on:
doing a shamanic journey to meet one of your ancestors
using a pendulum to identify which ancestor helps you most
seeking ancestor input through a tarot reading
creating a semi-permanent hanging altar like the one pictured above
write a prayer poem of gratitude to your ancestor community
let your ancestors press images into your mind about their lives
A more methodical and informal honoring of your ancestors might be to do some genealogy. See how far back you can get, and read up a bit on the historical time period in which your oldest traceable ancestors lived. If you find any "famous names" in your family tree, look them up on Wikipedia -- not always the most credible source, but still a good place to start. You might be surprised how many similarities there are to your own traits and life experiences.