Another look at Halloween

Samhain/Halloween (October 31-November 1)

This is the time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest, the night when the dead return to visit us, to feast, and communicate with us. The seeds from the dying plants fall to the Earth, and there they wait until the proper mixture of heat and light once again stirs the life within. Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) is the most important, but also the least understood of the ancient Celtic festivals. Samhain means “summer’s end,” and it’s clearly the initiation of the darkest time of the year.

The secular holiday of Halloween, as well as the Christian holidays of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2), all have their roots in ancient Pagan or Celtic festivals. Halloween in contemporary times contains some of the elements of the original festivities, but has been distorted in its meaning and expression.

In A Woman’s Book of Rituals and Celebrations, Barbara Ardinger articulates the deeper meanings of this holiday:

How many of the kids who put on their (Halloween) costumes and thrust plastic bags at us for candy know what “trick or treat” really means? Do they know that Halloween is our most sacred holiday? Do they know why they dress as ghosts and witches and carry plastic jack-o’-lanterns?

Today, alas, it’s only party time.

But it hasn’t always been so.

Hallows, Hallowmas, All Hallows Eve—the “hallow” in all three names comes from the Middle English word that means “holy.” When something is hallowed, it’s sanctified and consecrated. Even when the Christian Church took over our holiday (holy day), it kept the name, for “Halloween” means “hallowed evening.” Not only that, they also made November 1 All Saints Day and November 2 All Souls Day.

On All Souls Day, the barriers between this world and the Otherworld are removed, and the dead are able to rise from their own graves. In our culture, death is dealt with poorly, as something to be denied and to be feared, so instead of honoring our ancestors and deceased loved ones on this holiday, it’s taken on an entirely different kind of spin. Trick or treat had an entirely different meaning. Originally, you would leave food for the ancestors and the faeries. If you didn’t, then they’d play tricks on you, perhaps for the entire year.

However, these ancestors that were portrayed as ghouls, ghosts, and goblins, actually visited us to help us. They weren’t scary at all. The treats left for them were to welcome them, to let them enjoy memories of their time while on Earth. Psychic powers are highest on each of the quarter days, but are at the strongest at Samhain. The communication between the living and the world of the dead is at an all time high, with messages being exchanged both ways.

Commemorating Samhain/All Hallow’s Eve—One of the most elegant ceremonies you can do on this day is one celebrated in Mexico and other Latin American countries, called El Dia de las Muertes, or Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 2.

As described by a friend, Martha Granados, it’s a holiday set aside to honor your deceased loved ones. Technically, it’s two days, as November 1 is the day to honor any children who have died, while November 2 is to honor the adults who have passed on. Of the two, November 2 is the most important, and is thought of as the actual holiday.

To commemorate this day, you set up an altar specifically to honor those ancestors. You spread Rose petals across the altar, then add a candle or candles, a glass of water, some flowers, and photos of loved ones. As well, you set on the altar an ofrenda, or offering, of small bits of food, preferrably the types of food your deceased loved ones enjoyed. As Martha says, “Of course the spirits can’t eat the food, but they enjoy the sight and smell of it.” And they’re no doubt honored that you devoted this day to their memory.

That night you light the candle and say a prayer of gratitude and invitation, and ideally leave the candle lit all night. Practically, leaving it lit for a few hours still pays homage to your deceased loved ones. It will undoubtedly bring up some emotion, so it’s an opportunity to yield to any unfinished grief or sorrow.

Martha described her experience:

I was very close to my abuela (grandmother), who died in 1994. Many times she came to me in my dreams, and I would cry. Then one time in a dream she told me, “I’m with you always,” and after that, I didn’t feel so sad. After her death, on El Dia de las Muertes, I would put rose petals on the altar, a picture of her, a candle, a glass of water, and light the candle. Then I would put some of her favorite foods—tortillas, garlic, chili peppers, salt, pepper, pumpkin seeds—these were the kinds of things she used to cook with. I’d put some flowers there also, and light the candle and leave it burning for a few hours at night.

I loved my abuela so much. Ever since that dream, I know she is always with me. Doing this makes me feel even closer to her.

Once the children have stopped knocking at the door, and all the treats are gone, I can think of no better way to celebrate the deeper meaning of this very special quarter day than the ceremony for El dia de las Muertes that Martha described.


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