“People in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o’lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.”
– Jack Santino, The Folklore of All Hallows
I love to tell my children the old stories of Halloween – how for at least 1200 years (and likely much longer) people of Celtic heritage were celebrating a festival of the dead on October 31st, complete with bonfires, costumes, and treats left on stoops for the wandering spirits. November 1st was the marking of a new year in the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the darkest half of the year. Harvest in, darkness falling earlier, leaves almost all tumbled off the trees, it was seen as a time when the veils between the worlds were said to be thinner and the spirits of the departed returned to frolic once more among the living.
Out walking with Braeden today we talked about what it means to return to the earth. We studied the leaves just fallen from the trees and I showed him how the colorful ones still had their sweet pliable lifeblood about them while the brownest ones were easily crumpled, crunchily turning back into the earth before our very eyes. In our bedtime stories of the past few evenings I’ve woven in how our ancestors likely were paying very close attention to the natural world and the lessons contained therein. Just like the leaves returning to earth, this is a time for us too to contemplate those who have passed to the other side before us.
The day after Halloween we set up our ‘Day of the Dead’ altar with photos of my Grandpa Lundin, my Grandma Rhea and Grandpa Nick, and my great great grandmother Wilhelmina. There is a photo of my father paying his respects at my grandpa McNamara’s grave in Normandy, where he died right after D-Day during World War II. It got us talking about our bodies returning to earth, and why some of us are buried in the ground. Rowan got out his drawing paper and asked me to draw a person who had “gone back to the earth.” He then drew a “hole” (which for me harkened a tree – the symbolism of which wasn’t lost on me since many of my European ancestors believed we came from trees and thus should return to earth in trees – hence the wooden coffin). Rowan added hearts around the body, and peace signs representing how those who “have gone back to the earth are thinking about peace and surrounded by love.” While explaining his drawing to his friend Emily today over a lit candle he said “here is the dead person in their cradle, back to the earth.”
Yes! Here we were, getting at what I think is part of the central essence of this ancient celebration. Like Jack Santino writes, here we are “reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.” Over lollipops left over from trick-or-treating we talk about how the candy of the season should really be a reminder of the sweetness of life since we are here amongst this glorious land of the living. Luckily, the six year olds agree. “It shouldn’t just be all about the sugar.”
Today, November 2nd, is “All Souls Day,” designated as such by the Church sometime in about 1000AD as a day to honor the dead. It built upon the existing “All Saints Day” of November 1st, which had been designated in the 8th Century by Pope Gregory III, a feast day to coincide with the pagan Samhain and the Celtic New Year, with the evening before known over time as “All Hallow’s Eve,” now our current ‘Halloween.’
Of course the more ancient origins were rooted in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, where bonfires were lit and people would wear costumes to ward off and confuse the ghosts traveling between worlds at this time of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when spirits and the souls of the departed were catered to with offerings of food and drink (often ale or wine). Trick-or-treating likely has its roots here, or perhaps from the tradition of going door to door collecting food for Samhain feasts, or from the All Souls Day parades in England, where people would give out ‘soul cakes’ in return for praying for departed family members.
In a culture gone mad with candy and consumerism, I pine for the quiet thread of story that Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, and All Souls Day weave together. I tell it to my children in several acts each night, and build on the themes during the day. What do we notice about nature around us? How is the darkness landing earlier and earlier and how does it make us feel? Why is it important to remember those who have passed before us? And, is there really a mysterious realm of ‘other-world’ that we cannot truly know?
For now, I tell them that this is the time of year to go inwards into the light of their own hearts even as it is getting darker. This is the time to feel our roots settling deeply into the earth, even as the leaves of our activities may be falling away. What sustains us deep below that is beyond the fruits of our labors? Where can we find life in hidden places, even when so many things are dying? These are the words I utter as they slowly drift off to sleep.