Ancestor altars come up in discussions around Samhain a lot because of the nature of the Sabbat and the time of year. But ancestor altars can be set up and maintained at any time of year, not just at Samhain. Honoring the ancestors is something that can be done any time, not just when the veil between worlds is thin. The ancestors are hardly going to frown on you if you set up an altar in June rather than October. They should just be happy that they’re being remembered.
How to go about setting up an altar
First, decide where it’s going to go. It doesn’t have to be a huge affair. Depending on what you want to put up on it, the altar can be a section of shelf or a nightstand-sized table. It can even consist of a three-tier narrow shelf, the kind that you can find for cheap at IKEA or Target. As long as it’s sturdy and easily accessible to you, then an altar can go anywhere.
Second, decide if you want some kind of altar dressings. This means figuring out if you want an altar cloth, what kind, what color, etc. Do you want to put candles on the altar? What kind, long-burning tapers or short-burning tealights? Size and number will affect how much size if available on the altar for photos and other such things.
Third, decide how many photos you want on the altar. You can have one or two or many. This also relates to who you wish to honor with the altar. If you want to honor your ancestors in general, then great, you could decorate a small sign with your family name(s) and use that. If you want to honor specific people, then you have to figure out who and if you want to use their pictures. [Note: Do NOT put the photo or name of any living person on an ancestor altar. It’s a space for honoring the dead–not exactly where you want to put a living person’s name or picture.]
Fourth, and this is entirely optional, decide if you want to write out a list (long or short) of your ancestors in the place of or in addition to photographs. How far back do you want to go? What do you want the list to look like? Do you want it simple, framed, unframed, or in calligraphy?
On my altar, I have a few pictures so far (I plan to add more), and a list of my deceased ancestors going back to the seventh generation. I have a taper candle that lasts about four hours, and a vase for flowers when I can get some. It all sits on a top shelf for right now, but I don’t think the ancestors really mind.