The breeze tonight is soft and cool. In the distance the fires burn, filling the air with the sweet scent of Oak, Ash and straw. The light from the fires mingle with the last rays of sunlight. Twilight rises as I set off down the road, towards the fires at the edge of the village.
A pleasant sensation begins to move through my body, then I hear it; ’tis the drumming and chanting of The Old Songs. I quicken pace for the celebration’s begun. Tonight’s to be a night of merry. There’s to be dancing and food and drink ‘til n’er morn. Torches are to be lit from the fires and carried into the homes for the hearths. Bread and ale are to be placed on the tables to welcome our visitors. Tonight the veils are parted and for one night our loved ones will come home.
Today we know this night as Halloween or All Hallows Eve or All Souls Eve; a night for the child in all of us to dress in costume, party and scare the wits out of ourselves and others. What is now a night of haunted houses, bloodshed and candy (a strange combination), began as a night of honoring loved-ones past. Although The Festival of the Dead is known by many names in many cultures the beliefs and ritual run similar threads around the world. If you share a bit of that chocolate bar with me I’ll take you on a two-penny tour.
Our first stop is the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced SOW-en). Celebrated at the end of the harvest season, Samhain is the night of the year when the veils between the worlds are the thinnest. Like many cultures the Celts believe quite literally in life-everlasting. For them, death is not an ending; it is merely a door into the next reality. The other world is a mirror image of this one and life continues in much the same way.
This view of the afterlife is much like that of the Egyptians who celebrate The Beautiful Feast of the Valley, Sunset Ceremony or The Festival of Wag (or Wagy). Beginning at the Nile, a parade of acrobats and musicians lead a procession to the tombs where food and drink are offered to the departed. Acrobatics aside, for parades of art and mysterious ritual New Orleans and Africa top the charts.
Under the belief that restless spirits may come back to cause mischief, in New Orleans these processions include people disguised as departed spirits. This “guising” is meant to confuse the spirits and is at the roots of our present day custom to dress up as ghosts and skeletons. Hey, why should the spirits have all the fun? In Peru and Mexico we know this as El Dia de los Muertos, All Souls Day; Touissant to the French; Velja Noc in Old Slavic; Genesia in Old Greek.
In Africa during the Egungun Festival, the guising takes on a new meaning. This festival honors ancestors with drumming, chanting and prayer. Individuals offer their services to families by donning the garb and thereby taking on the persona of a departed loved one. The purpose is to assist in transmuting the prayers to that soul. In Haiti a similar festival is called Fet Gede.
The festivals change slightly when we enter Asian lands. On the one hand we have Zhonguan Jie or Happy Celebration, a time to honor the ancestors. On the other hand we have Ullamban or Chinese Halloween.
In Chinese culture the departed have a journey ahead of them and if they have not been properly sent off they can not complete their journey. At the Chinese Ghost Festival, or in Thailand, Pee Ta Khon, the gates to the world of the dead are opened. This is a time of Hungry Ghosts. Souls who have not received proper tribute wander looking for food and supplies which are offered up to them by the burning of joss paper. (Lisa See does a wonderful job of allowing us to experience being a Hungry Ghost in her novel, Peony in Love, Random House Publishing, 2007).
Festivities take on a lighter air at the Japanese O-bon festival, a happy time of family reunion. This is a time to clean and care for gravesites and honor the ancestors. In Vietnam the festival is called Te Trung Nguyen and in Beijing we have Qingming Jie or Clear Brightness.
Observed in April, Clear Brightness actually began as a fertility festival much like the Celtic Beltane. Since the dead were believed to be responsible for the fertility of the fields and prosperity of the home it was considered a good idea to keep them happy, therefore gravesites were cleaned and picnics held at graveside. Over time the focus of this celebration shifted from a day of fertility and prosperity to a day of remembrance.
In some cultures, such as certain Native American communities, this day of remembrance is not observed. In these traditions the ancestors are honored with every prayer. For most of us, however, our lives become overly hectic with our attention forever focused on what we need to do next. Perhaps, for us, setting aside one day each year for the remembrance of loved ones past would be a healthy tradition to revive; for it is as much to honor our own heart as it is to honor their memory.
There are many simple ways to make space in our lives for those who have parted. Simply wearing Grandma’s necklace or making one of her recipes for dinner can open up conversations with the children, opening up a time to share all those special memories. Updating the family photo albums with notations and stories about the pictures is another way to honor our loved ones. This is a project I’m currently planning with my eighty-one year old mother; she’s the only one who knows all those people and the pictures usually prompt a good tale.
For your listening pleasure – Loreena McKennitt – All Soul’s Night
Leave a comment to share how your family remembers their ancestors or any other thoughts you may have.
See Prompt Page for accompanying writing prompt.
Next Time: A true-life ghost story. I’ll post it on the 30th….