Honoring the Dead
Every year my heart lifts on the first night that I notice the change in the air as the seasons begin to shift. There’s a distinct smell that becomes present in the fall. The nights grow longer and a certain mystery becomes present. I can sense it most profoundly at dusk and dawn—the liminal times of our days here on earth. There’s something magical about this shifting of the seasons. As the light passes into darkness and warmth turns towards cold. The plants draw their energies down into their roots—releasing the last of their seeds as they prepare for the winter. I have been taught that a part of the in-betweenness of this season extends beyond our earthly realm of perception. Since I was a child, I have celebrated this time as the season of the dead. I have been taught that this is the time when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest. The tradition that I first learned about this time of year is that of my ancestors, the Celtic tradition of Samhain.
Samhain is officially celebrated by many modern Pagans beginning at sunset October 31st and ends at sunset on November 1st. Ancient Celts looked to the world around them and saw the life of the earth turning towards death and some historians ascribe this as the roots of the holiday. Legend has it that the ancients used to dress up in scary outfits to scare away the evil spirits (some say this is the root of Halloween costumes). However, it is hard to really know much about this holiday because scholarship on pre-Christian European religion tends to be shoddy at best. Historians do seem to agree that the Catholic holiday of All Souls day was created through and incorporation of this holiday into Christian tradition.
We do know is that celebrations of the dead and the waning light are present in many different traditions throughout the world. Perhaps the most well known celebration of the ancestors at this time of year is “Dia De Los Muertos”. This is a Mexican and Central American holiday that is celebrated by folks throughout the diaspora. This is a celebration of honoring the dead and the ancestors.
Many families create altars, art, and make food offerings for the dead during this time. Marigolds or Calendula blossoms are commonly found on Altars for Dia de Los Muertos. The Aztecs believed that the smell of these blossoms would bring back the souls of the dead for this festival. This tradition is still very present today and Calendula is used by many during this time to call forth the beloved ancestors. Graves are visited and stories are told. Historians also seem to agree that the Mexican Catholic celebration of All Souls day is an incorporation of Dia De Los Muertos into Catholic tradition.
More towards the beginning of the harvest season in Hong Kong, many people observe the celebration of Yu Lahn which honors the dead and incorporates giving offerings to the dead into the traditions. In the Hindu tradition, the holiday Diwali is a 5 day celebration that occurs sometime between mid October to mid November. Diwali is a celebration of light and the goddess Lakshmi. Diwali and Samhain mark a new year in both Hindu and Celtic tradition. Many Jewish people also observe a new year in the fall, during the season of Rosh Hashanna. Isn’t it interesting that so many traditions recognize the harvest season as the time of the new year?
Now before I move forward I want to offer a caution. While I am focusing on the similarities between these traditions, there are also many differences. I do not want to essentialist any of these celebrations nor water them down by lumping them together. Each are distinct holidays that emerge from a particular historical and cultural context as well as a particular land base. That being said, it has been fascinating for me over the years to learn about these different traditions and revel in the beauty of the connections and differences between them.
This week, as we move closer towards Dia De Los Muertos and Samhain, I invite you to consider creating some space in your life to honor this time of year. Take a moment to spend some time in quiet stillness outdoors and breath in the shifting of the seasons. Listen to the land and to your ancestors who may feel closer to connect with right now. I invite you to ask these spirits and ancestors, how to honor them and this change of the season. Do they whisper,
“Create beauty in your home for us”,
“leave us offerings outside, here in this place”,
“tell a story of my life to someone who never knew me”,
“take time and remember me”
“go to my grave and bring me flowers”
“light a candle for the light as the sun turns towards darkness”
I invite you to listen to the land and take time to give thanks for those who created you. Give thanks for the ancestors and spirits who have given you life. For without them, we surely would not be here today.