”ONCE, we commemorated the dead, left out offerings to feed them and lamps to guide them home. These days, Halloween has drifted far from its roots in pagan and Catholic festivals, and the spirits we appease are no longer those of the dead: needy ghosts have been replaced by costumed children demanding treats.” (Bess Lovejoy)
Samhain is the name of the pagan celebration marking the beginning of winter. Samhain was seen as a time when the veil separating our world from the Otherworlds opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings, to to pass through. Feasts were had where the souls of dead kinsfolk were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.
In much of the once Gaelic world, bonfires (or bone-fires) were lit and there were rituals where people and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.
People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which included the custom of wearing costumes and masks as a way to confuse and ward-off (or possibly represent) the harmful spirits. This being particularly appropriate on a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be afoot.
Over the last century or so Europeans and North Americans have (rather successfully) pushed death and dying away from everyday life. Not so in Mexico. I’ve been here for some 6 years now and lately I’ve become fascinated with Mexico’s Grand Dame of Death, La Catrina or La Calavera Catrina.
It could quite possibly have something to do with a friend introducing me to The Order of the Good Death and that I find Caitlin Doughtys enthusiasm contagious (and the fact that I share her rather morbid sense of humor), but it’s more than that. Maybe it’s the right time, the end of one era and the beckoning of a new one. A symbolic gesture small enough to grasp though representing something infinitely much larger.
Here in Mexico, as opposed to every other place I’ve lived, death is part of life. It can be tragedy but it’s rarely grand drama. Although there are undertakers and funeral homes etc here too, the family is very much part of the process of dying. People nurse their sick and elderly at home (or sometimes in hospital), they wash and dress them.
At the wake, often held at home with an open coffin, family and friends come to spend time with the deceased and support the family members (and each other). You talk, cry, comfort and support one another, sharing memories and food, keeping the deceased company through the night, until the funeral ceremony and burial/cremation the following day.
Mexicans honor their dead all year round, which is probably the reason why I encounter far fewer ”ghosts” here (than for example in the UK). Dia de los Muertos is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico, where families and friends celebrate and honor those that have passed. Most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and clean and decorate their graves with offerings to the dead which often include orange Mexican Marigolds, sometimes called flower of the dead, thought to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings. Toys are brought for dead children.
In Pre-hispanic times the dead were buried close to family homes and there was great emphasis on maintaining ties with deceased ancestors, who were believed to continue to exist on a different plane. With the arrival of the Spaniards and Catholicism, All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day practices were incorporated into Pre-hispanic beliefs and customs and Day of the Dead came to be celebrated.
The belief behind Dia de los Muertos/Dia de los Angelitos (or Inocentes)/Dia de los Difuntos practices is that spirits return to the Earth for one day of the year to be with their families. It is said that the spirits of babies and children who have died (called angelitos, “little angels”) arrive on October 31st at midnight, spend an entire day (Nov 1st) with their families and then leave. Adults come the following day (2nd Nov).
Earth is the region of the fleeting moment. (Pre-hispanic Nahuatl saying)
Growing up, we just went to church, then cleaned the graves of grandparents and great grandparents before decorating them with candle cans or lanterns that then burned through the night (and sometimes the weekend).
There are many other stories I’ve heard over the years talking about this time of year, one of my favorites being one told by my grandpa. He said noone was to hunt on this day (and night) because the spirits of the dead protected the animals and would play tricks on those who didn’t refrain from doing so. Depending on their degree of disrespect and intent there would be either just a fright, a taunt or really sending them over the edge and the ”nut-house”. A keen hunter himself he’d never known anyone who disregarded this advice to shoot anything apart from on a couple of occasions an other hunter…
Grandpa was a great storyteller and you never quite knew how much was added in for the benefit of his young audience, but my gut-feeling tells me most of it did indeed have it’s roots in reality. He had lived quite a life and had many a story to tell on a rainy day.
I don’t celebrate Halloween, it is not something I grew up with. (My most memorable introduction to Halloween was watching the movie The E.T.) I’m far to introverted to enjoy donning a fancy costume that will draw the kind of attention I generally avoid and head out among large groups of people making merry… I do however celebrate Samhain in my own way.
But I’ll admire the often lavish decorations of the downtown restaurants and the costumes of their staff when I drop Mario off at work. Then I’ll go back home, lock the door, place a few white roses on my altar, light candles and incense and later put the old year to rest like the pagan I am. I will remember and honor those no longer among us in physical form, raise a mug of steaming coffee in a well met. Recite the Druids Prayer and play with the cat/s as a celebration of life.
Grant us O God thy protection and
in protection strength and
in strength understanding and
in understanding knowledge and
in knowledge the knowledge of justice
and in the knowledge of justice
the love of it
and in that love the love of all existences
and in the love of all existences
Love of God
The Love of the Goddess
and all goodness.
So mote it be.
(as taught to me by Septimus Bron)
as blessed is
may we all be.
All pictures from Google, without any information to give credits.