I walk up the garden across a carpet of red and gold maple leaves, reflecting on how such stunning beauty comes to be. From bud break in early Spring, green predominates, as chlorophyll absorbs the sunlight & powers the tree’s growth. Then, as the life-force slackens for the year, the true colours of the leaves appear from behind their green mask.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here that we can apply to our lives here on earth: the green being our physical self – our earthly concerns, where we are caught up in the material matters of our daily lives. It’s only when we slow down & go inside that the rich, deep colours can appear. We pass through the portal into the spiritual world. And yet it’s not a portal, for these are not two worlds apart. We can no more camp out in the world of spirit, leaving our physical life behind, than a tree can be dressed in autumn’s colours all year long. It’s the ebb & flow of the seasons that enable us to see the facets of the natural world, while the same cycling of our personal energies allows us to move between the physical & spiritual planes of this one world.
At certain times of the year, the outward energy drives us. We plan, we set goals, & eventually harvest the fruits of our labours. And at other times, such as at Samhain, we sense that the outward drive has receded, & it’s time to slow down, to reflect, to go metaphorically – & perhaps literally – into the woods.
Wendell Berry wrote about the spiritual experience of the woods in his poem, How Long does it Take to Make the Woods? The poem ends with these lines:
. . .To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the sisterhood of eye and leaf. **
This is the wonderful opportunity the Samhain season affords us: to participate in the rich inner life of who we are when we leave behind our outer concerns, distractions & identities. & there is an even deeper & more mysterious time to come, for soon the trees will be stripped of their leaves by the winter gales. The woods will open up to let the sky pour in between their leafless branches – a winter’s sky so broad & luminous that far from being a time of endings, we can perhaps look forward to the culmination of our journey of one year’s birth & death in a mindscape of pure & endless Light.
Samhain is one of the high holy days of the year. It’s a time to meditate on our link with the Other Side, that realm we slip into when we dream or die or dance with ecstasy or loosen the binds of our logical minds, to hopefully negotiate a smart new treaty with our dark side…Many people are so frightened of this realm that they avoid ever knowing it…thus ensuring it will always haunt them like an ominous shadow…that must be one of the reasons why Halloween has taken on such a gruesome aspect…But when we create the safety of sacred space, the power of All Hallows is a source of power & renewal for us…During this season the veil between the world of the living & realm of the dead is thin. It’s an opportunity to communicate with our ancestors, to heal old wounds, to open to their blessings…One of your dead relatives may have something to share, if you are open to hear their message…You could also catch a glimpse of yourself as you were in the distant past…or will be in the far future…for what is time but a construct to mark the circle of eternity… Contemplate the fact that there will come a time many years from now when you will die…Imagine yourself as the person you will be on that day…Look back on your life and think about all the things you wish you would have done that you didn’t do…Then come back in time to the person you are today & perhaps you will chose to vow that you’re going to get started on accomplishing these things sometime in the next three months…the time of the dark…maybe you’ll go home & take a long hot shower after midnight. Step out, light a candle, & gaze in the mirror until the secrets begin to flow…
But for now, let this time inspire you to catch a glimpse of the other side of the veil & pay reverence to your ancestors…You have two biological parents, four grandparents, & eight great-grandparents. You wouldn’t be you if it weren’t for those 14 people. The legacy they bequeathed you plays a major role in determining your virtues & vices, your attractions & aversions…& this is a perfect spiritual & astrological moment to get to know them better. In fact, deepening your connection to your family’s history will provide crucial clues, as you seek to reinvigorate your tired old perspectives on long-running dilemmas…Look within…to evolve your understanding of where you came from & where, therefore, you belong…? Think on those ancestors aligned with love & light that you would like to honor…Maybe you have unresolved issues that you would like to work out…or maybe you’d like to skip right over the direct bloodline thing & honor a historical ancestor that has inspired your life…think on them that made us…call out their names, speak their stories if you will, as you cook their favorite foods & light incense as an offering to the dead…
Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead, or All Soul’s Day, refers to a yearly holiday in which the dead are honored by various practices, including religious rites, feasts, special foods, and even songs and parades. Typically, the Day of the Dead is celebrated as a time when the departed and the living come together for a celebration or to share a meal. Such ceremonies are ancient, and they continue to be practiced across the globe.
In many African traditional religions, the spirits of the dead watch over their living relatives and intercede for them with other kinds of divine spirits. To appease the dead, the families hold feasts for them. The meal is viewed as a kind of communion between the living and the dead.
Hindu ancestor rites take place over the course of 10 days, during which time the soul is offered food so that it can survive the journey through the underworld. Also, on the first new autumn moon, the head of every household conducts rituals commemorating the departed of the preceding three generations.
The traditional Chinese, in particular, conduct a ceremony in the autumn, a two-week Hungry Ghost Festival. According to tradition, the departed who have no living descendants to feed them become hungry ghosts. During the festival, food is offered to these “ghosts” who are represented by lamps made of lotus flowers that are carried in streets and by candles in tiny boats that are put into streams at dusk.
The Feast of Lanterns, the Japanese Day of the Dead is a time when many families celebrate the cyclic nature of life and death by remembering their dead. Departed souls return home on this day and are offered food and entertainment. Special ceremonies are held in the household, and special lanterns are placed at entranceways to direct the dead.
The holiday we designate as Halloween (All Hallow E’en or All Hallows Eve) was formerly a Day of the Dead for the ancient Europeans, a day
when the “veil” between this world and the other world was thought to be unusually thin. The present date of All Hallows Eve was set by the Catholic Church, which took over the ancient Roman Day of the Dead, Feralia, and transferred it to the first of November. The Catholic All Hallows Eve blended with certain fear-based northern European beliefs, to give the Halloween familiar to most Americans, its current associations with the powers of evil. The tradition of costumed children going door to door asking for food is an echo of the ancient practice of providing food for the spirits of the departed. But for the most part, we moderns have forgotten the original meaning of Halloween. The spirit of the original has been preserved in Mexico.
El Dia de los Muertes, the official Day of the Dead, is November 2, All Souls’ Day. The conquistadors introduced this date, but it fit well with traditional corn celebrations. Activities begin somewhat earlier, on October 31 – Halloween. Families clean house, prepare great quantities of chicken, tortillas, and hot chocolate, and make candles and bread in the form of animals. They build small clay altars on which they offer food and toys to the angelitos (the spirits of dead children). In the middle of the night, the family prays while the Angelitos come, enjoy their gifts, and then leave.
During the next day, All Saint’s Day, the children consume the food that had been offered to the angelitos. A larger feast is prepared for the souls of the older dead, who are expected to show up around dawn the next day. The food for this second celebration is spicier, and the altar is larger. This altar contains decorated bones and skulls made from marzipan or special baked bread. The foreheads of the skulls bear the names of the dead, or sometimes a suitable motto or sentiment.
Far from being days of mourning, these holidays are a genuine celebration. The Mexicans enjoy carnival rides, eat candy shaped like bones and tiny coffins, and frequently drink heavily. Rather than dishonoring the dead, such celebrations are thought to make the deceased happy, as the spirits enjoy the same pleasures as living human beings.
People go from house to house sharing food and telling stories about the dead, who have gathered to hear what the living are saying about them. Everyone is mentioned for fear that any of the departed who is neglected may become unhappy. Priests visit their parishioners’ homes, praying with the family and giving blessings. The family shrine is often decorated with photos of the deceased and of their patron saints.
The visitations between neighbors go on all night until morning mass the next day. All Souls’ Day, the community travels to the cemetery, where families pray, sing, and share food one more time in a picnic over the graves of the spirits of deceased relatives. The tradition holds that by the end of this meal the departed are completely satisfied and can be at peace until the next Day of the Dead.
Taken from: “The Death and Afterlife Book-
The Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death,
And Life After Death”
By: James R. Lewis
Observance of “The Day of The Dead” is most traditional in areas of southern Mexico where Indian influence is strongest. Customary observance of Día de los Muertos is likely to include: making of altares (altars) filled with ofrendas (offerings) such as fruits, flowers, incense, candles, hot chocolate, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), as well as photographs of the dead and some of their favorite foods, feasting, visiting, gifting, church attendance, cleaning and decorating family graves, eating and keeping company with the dead in the cemetery. You’ll find the festival decorated with bright yellow-orange marigolds, as well as the animated figures of calacas (skeletons). You might hear special songs & poems (calaveras) during the celebration, or write one of your own. These range from satirical poems poking fun at someone, to rhymes about death, to songs about someone you cherish. In the middle of this fun and reverence, you will certainly see ofrendas – gifts, and an altar dedicated to remembrance.
Unlike the American need to find fear during this season, this ancient holiday mixes fun, reverence, remembrance and respect. It’s a season when you get to spend time with those who have passed into the next realm and think about yourself with future generations.
Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
Astrological Date: Sun 15° Scorpio
As with all the traditional Solar Festivals, the early Christian Church was quite happy for the mid-Autumn Festival to continue to be celebrated, provided it was given an appropriately Christian slant. In the Church calendar it is All Saints’ Day (also called Hallowmas, from which comes Halloween for the preceding evening; remember that traditionally, all the Festivals commence at sunset on the preceding day). This is the day on which you can pray for all those Saints who do not have special days of their own; & indeed pray to them for their intercession with God. What is more, the following day, November 2nd, is designated All Souls’ Day, when prayer may be offered for anyone who is departed from this life. The Day of the Dead is a holiday that focuses on remembering dead relatives & friends, giving them offerings, & praying for their safe passage to heaven. The night before All Saints Day, families stay up all night making food for altars & guests. The altars are put out at this time in the home for the spirits of the dead. On each altar is the dead person’s favorite food & drink, toys & candy for children, & alcohol & tobacco for adults. Candles adorn the altars as well. At 4 am on November 1st, the children’s spirits arrive and leave 4 hours later, after consuming the spirit of the offerings on the altar. This is repeated later that day with the adult spirits. On the second day, prayers are said for the dead and priests travel to cemeteries, blessing the graves and praying. There are three masses that day, indicative of the strong religious beliefs. The evening of the second day, graves are decorated and there are picnics in the cemeteries (which would be unheard of in the United States). This day is much more social and the food that was on the altars is given to friends. Also, the image of a skull is present in both toys and candy that are given as gifts to living friends and family. Day of the Dead deals with accepting the deaths of family members and helping them get to the other side.
The celebration of Samhain has its origins in a much older cultural tradition. The Celts lived in continental Europe (where the Romans called them the “Gauls”) as early as three thousand years ago, migrating after that to the British Isles. Ireland, Scotland, Wales & Brittany have been the strongholds of Celtic language & traditions in modern times. Samhain was the most important of the Celtic fire festivals, or holy days, because it marked the New Year. The harvest had ended & winter was on the way. The last crops had been picked, a chill was in the air, & the dark half of the year was beginning. Samhain was an important festival that served many purposes: spiritual, agricultural, social, political, & military. It was a holiday of obligation to unite the tribe. To commemorate the New Year, fires all over the Celtic world were extinguished the night of Samhain, then relighted from ceremonial blazes kindled by Druids (the religious & intellectual leaders of the pre-Christian Celts).
In northern Europe at least, the lighting of bonfires at this season of year is perfectly natural. Just as Michaelmas, or Mabon, marks the end of the grain harvest, so Halloween marks the end of the fruit & vegetable harvest; everything that is perishable needs to be stored inside now, to protect it from frost, rain &, later on, snow. Meanwhile, out in the fields, there is the remaining debris of the harvest to be cleared, a year’s growth of hedgerow to cut back, & of course the drifts of brown leaf litter that are such a characteristic feature of autumn in our temperate climes. All this must be disposed of, hence the bonfires. Of course, the fires themselves are welcome, too, the communal bonfire in the field as much as the family fire in the hearth, for the warmth & protection that they give to us as the weather begins to turn unpleasantly cold.
And then there are the animals. The sheep & the cattle cannot be left out in the bare, cold fields. Those that are to be kept over the winter have already been brought into the barns; the others will have been slaughtered to provide meat for the cold, dark days ahead when fresh food in in short supply. This meat will need cooking or drying to preserve it for the months to come. This, in turn, will call for more fires.
Traditionally, too, the hunters of wild animals & birds for food would be out in force at this time of year. In the lunar calendar, the full moon of the month of October is known as the Hunter’s Moon. After the end of the breeding season, & before the severe winter weather that would kill off many of these creatures anyway, large numbers of hare, deer, wild boar & various game birds were taken for the cooking-pot, once again for the purposes of supplementing what might otherwise be a rather meager winter diet.
With all this death around, it is not surprising that people’s thoughts turned to human death, & Samhain is a celebration of death. To many people today it seems odd to speak of celebrating death, yet for our ancestors it was not seen as the end of an individual life, but simply as the passing of that life through the veil of darkness that separates our world from the world of spirit beyond, where it would enjoy life renewed.
It should be no surprise, then, that it is commonly believed that at Samhain, while not leaving our own world, we might nevertheless see glimpses of the spirit world beyond, & perhaps even meet with souls who have already passed into that realm. To honor those that came before us gives perspective on our lives.
I create sacred space in my home & in my facilitation for the honoring
of the ancestors…stories of lives lived are told, offerings are given…
in ritual we work with fire for transformation, burning away all obstacles to create a better life in the year to come…as a feast of divination, this is the most potent time of year to peer into the future, as Samhain exists outside the bonds of linear time, we straddle the threshold, one side turned toward the past in commemoration of those who have died during the last year, & the other side gazing hopefully toward the future, with mystic eyes attempting to pierce the alreadty thinning veil, to divine what the coming year holds…Also enacting the archetypical life/death/life myths of Innana, Persephone, etc. can be quite enlightening…
Here in America, Halloween calls for an interaction with spooky strangers, that come out of the night, knocking on our door, shouting, give me a treat or you’ll get a trick…on a spiritual level, trick-or-treat, can be seen as a demand that strangers, a symbol of the unfamiliar parts of ourselves, give up their gifts to us…cause there is a lot of energy that gets locked up in the dark…& Halloween is an opportunity for us to dialogue with the dark, the shadow side of The Self, & call that energy back…light & dark are not opposites, but 2 parts of the same cycle…
In order to fully appreciate the festivals of light, that return with the winter solstice, we must 1st grow in the dark womb of our perennial inward journey…with the veil between the worlds so thin, great transformations are possible, since the power of all the dimensions are available to us…& it’s not only the veil between the physical & spiritual worlds that thin…it can also be the division between any 2 polarities, like the left & right hemispheres in our brains for instance…or between any 2 realities that are struggling to coexist, like war & peace for instance…this dark night can represent a resolution of paradox…a respectful meeting of the different sides of the same coin, that can initiate the healing transformation required, in order to let the light back into our lives, once we’ve come to understand & own our side of the dark…