In her work, October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween, Paula Curan writes, “The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween.
All of us live with the knowledge that death is part of life. Cultural and religious traditions reflect our ambiguous attitudes about death. Halloween and Samhain both have their roots in the past, and are but two traditions that allow us to face death as we honor those who have departed from this earth. How do these two holidays speak to us, our children, and grandchildren about these attitudes and about our relationship with those who have come before and those yet to be born?
Samhain, pronounced, ‘sow-win’, is a Gaelic festival celebrated to mark the end of the Harvest season. Beginning at sundown on October 31 and ending at sundown November 1, Samhain also marks the beginning of the darker, winter times in the Northern Hemisphere. Long celebrated by Gaelic and Celtic peoples, Samhain is considered one of the liminal times, when the veil is lifted between the physical and spiritual worlds, and when we are encouraged to pray for those who have died and to remember our ties to our ancestors. Reverence for ancestors has become unfashionable for some who seem to consider it sacrilegious. However, Samhain, along with a number of other religious and spiritual practices observed and celebrated worldwide, honors our connection to those who have come before, and aims to honor those who will follow in our footsteps.
Liminal times are those times in our lives when we stand at a threshold, or when we are just about to enter into a new phase of life. For those of us who believe that life is eternal, and that our energy continues on after death, new phases include transitions like birth and death. Jewish scholar, Katy Z. Allan writes, “Human beings are generally uncomfortable with fluidity, uncertainty, impermanence, change and with liminality.Yet during the holiest times of the year, we immerse ourselves in uncertainty and liminality.” Allan goes on to describe the opening rituals of the month of Elul, when the Shofar, ram’s horn, is blown each morning sounding as a warning, a wake-up call to what is coming. Rosh HaShanah, the Book of Life, is opened, and the high holy days begin. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting, waiting, praying, performing acts of forgiveness (tesuvah) and seeking atonement become part of entering into perhaps the most sacred liminal time–a time reminiscent of death. During this sacred time, rituals are performed, sacred scriptures are read to remind those performing the ritual acts, where for three days and three nights, those in liminal time go through the stages of a ritual spiritual death to be reminded of the gift of life and the need to enter the new year full of life. The meaning, rituals, and depth of these holy rites of Judaism, are much more complex than this article allows, but the main point is to illustrate just one of many rites that celebrate the use of liminal time. You might notice some aspect of these rituals that have been carried over into other religious and spiritual traditions.
A number of Christian traditions honor the dead in a number of ways. The Roman Catholic tradition celebrates All Souls Day on November 2 (unless the date falls on Sunday in which case it is celebrated on November 3). This is a ‘commemoration of all the faithful departed’, when the faithful can pray for the departed, perform acts of kindness and charity, and offer a sacrifice through the mass. The Greek rite observes this rite on Sexagesima, the eighth Sunday before Easter, or on the Eve of Pentecost. Armenian Christian Catholics celebrate the day of the dead on the day after Easter.
Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico and throughout the world. Hallomass begins October 31 with All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, November 1, and All Souls Day, November 2. All these holidays, like most holidays in all traditions, have their roots in earlier traditions. Hallomass, a Christian tradition, has some roots in the ancient Aztec festival honoring the goddess, Michtecacihuatl. Traditions connected to these holy days including building an altar (ofrendas) to honor the dead. Sugar skulls, marigolds (in season during Autumn), and the favorite foods of the departed, are set upon the altar along with little offerings or gifts. Often prayers are written on sticks, paper, or stones, and left on the altar as a reminder to pray for the departed. In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday, and a day when families visit the cemeteries and graves of departed family members and friends to pray for them.
In The Philippines, Todos los Santos (November 1, All Saints Day), families visit the graves of their family members, gather for celebrations, and pray for and remember their dead. In Japanese culture, the O Bon festival, a Buddhist festival held in August, is a time for remembering and honoring the departed. The Qingming Festival, celebrated in early April, and the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month (on the Chinese calendar), are both times when the dead are honored. The Seventh month on the Chinese calendar is considered Ghost Month-a time when, like the Gaellic and Celtic calendar, the veils are thin between the spirit world and the physical world. It is a time to remember, pray for, and honor the departed. Of course death rituals vary within any culture or tribe of people, reflecting very diverse and unique differences. In some cultures, a yearly practice of recording the family deaths, births, marriages, and other important events, includes going to family graves to clean and pray for the departed.
Our experience of death, until the moment of our own death, is through what happens around us. None of us knows the experience first hand yet, and our holy days and rituals around them, allow us to enter into the realm of those who have passed before us, allows us to stand on the threshold, in some cases, mocking death that passes us by, for now. We put on our costumes, and don our masks, and think of ways to scare one another as we go Trick or Treating. Or we find a more meditative, prayerful way of entering liminal time where we consider our own spiritual and physical state of being, where we remember those whom we love and who have walked on, passed away, gone to the other side, or ascended into Heaven. Whatever our beliefs about death, we all stand in the space between life and death during liminal times, and we connect to the past, the present, and the future, standing here, mindful of our spiritual nature and the gift of life before us. As we celebrate the holidays, Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day this year, let us be mindful of those who fill our lives with joy, those we need to forgive, and those who need our help.
Samhain is a time to warm ourselves by the fires in the warmth and company of our good friends and family. It is a time to reflect on the harvest of the year and to prepare for the colder, darker months ahead. And it may be a time when the faeries and spirits may be around more than usual, so be on the lookout. Out of the corner of your eye, you might just spot a faery come to tell you a secret or share a vision. The faery mounds are open during Samhain, and messages and connections with those who have died, may be stronger now. However you spend this special time of the year, enjoy it in the company of friends, present or departed, pray for those who need your prayers, and celebrate Life and the gifts that lay before you. The idea that spirituality is something not to be spoken of, is what caused early Christians to defame the Celtic and Gaelic traditions of Samhain. There is room in this world for all types of beliefs and practices, and both Samhain and Halloween are but two of many traditions and holidays dedicated to honoring those who made our lives possible–our ancestors.
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