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Halloween, Samhain, & Dia de los Muertos

art cultural traditions current events fall history seasonal spiritual practices

There has been about a dozen "spiritual" or "holiday" celebrations associated with this time of year throughout the last 2,000 years or so. I want to talk about two traditions relevant to this point in the cycle of seasons: the Celtic pagan Sabbat of Samhain and the Central/South Mexican holy days of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
I'm pretty sure my more recent ancestors were actual indigenous Celtic people of Ireland, and perhaps in the more distant past (or in another life) I was a part of some indigenous Mexican people. I was drawn to both cultures for a long time before I even knew much about them - but nonetheless had a burning curiosity to understand and adopt some of these beautiful and profound practices into my life.
Halloween is a pretty big deal here in the US, but where did this day and these customs come from? Interestingly, it seems that many people all around the world in all different times recognized that this time of year was a special time for connecting with departed souls. To the Celtic people 2,000 years ago, this was their New Year and the time of year when the veil between worlds (between the living and the dead, and also other magickal realms where fairies and other beings live) is thinnest. This isn't an age-old myth that's been burnt out, though. Many modern pagans (myself included) observe these days with just the same relevance.
Firstly, this is the pagan Wheel of the Year, which I incorporate as a part of my spiritual practices:
photo credit: http://www.gypsygarden.net/wheel-of-the-year/
Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") is a Gaelic word meaning Summer's End. In the Celtic view of the world, the year is split into a dark and light half. Samhain is the end of the light half and the New Year is the beginning of the dark half. Samhain Eve starts at sunset on October 31st (because the Celts followed the moon calendar, so "days" began with the night). Everyone extinguished their fires at home and came together to build a huge sacred bonfire. People danced around the fire and wore costumes - either as a means of disguising themselves from trickster spirits, or as a way of visually honoring the plants and/or animals that nourished them through the previous seasons. Giving thanks to the Earth and the food that sustains human life was particularly important 2,000 years ago when everyone's survival depended entirely on the success of crops and livestock (it's still important to thank the Earth and our food, but sometimes we forget because we have grocery stores and central heating!). Offerings of crops and livestock were offered in the fire as a big thank you to the Earth and the spirit world. Communing with spirits was common because it was a significant time to connect with them. Ancestors were welcomed to join the living.
At the end of the night everyone took home a flame or burning ember from the sacred fire to light their own hearths for the next several months, never letting them extinguish. Offerings of food and drink were left outside homes in hopes of averting trickster spirits from bothering them. If people had to go outside, sometimes they would wear a costume or mask, also for protection. Fast forward 2,000 years and we've evolved to trick or treating from house to house in costumes.
The Romans, also a pagan culture, invaded Ireland around 43 BCE and adopted, but transformed, many of the Celtic spiritual practices to better suit their own. In time with the rise of the Christian empire, pagan traditions in general were assimilated and altered into Christian religious practices. This is ultimately where All Saints and All Souls Day come from. You can read more about the origins and practices of Samhain and Halloween here.
Meanwhile in Mexico, interesting blends of indigenous and Catholic observances were born over time. Dia de los Muertos begins at midnight on October 31st when the gates of heaven open and the souls of children join the living. It is observed until November 2nd, when the souls of adults then also join the living.
My infatuation with this sacred day is undoubtedly due to its stunningly beautiful visual manifestation. It is a very important holy day in the parts of Mexico it is celebrated and is full of vibrant colors, decadent foods and candies, and generally positive energy. One tradition that I have adopted into my observance of this time of year is making an altar (or ofrenda) to honor our ancestors with flowers, candy, food, drink, and objects that belonged to our loved ones. I am absolutely in love with the image of "sugar skulls" that are associated with the holiday. They are elaborately handmade candies in the shape of skulls decorated beautifully with bright colors, which are then left on the altars to entice the ancestors' spirits to return to Earth for a visit. I have a large collection of sugar skulls and also can't stop making art with their imagery. Here are some of the pieces I've made:
(Left) “Por mis Antepasados,” acrylic, ink, paper, yarn on driftwood, 2013

(Right) “Rosas para mi Amor,” acrylic, ink, canvas board, wood, 2015

On November 2nd the celebrations are taken to the cemeteries where people clean grave sites and decorate with more offerings. They play games, share stories of loved ones, and most definitely drink and share offerings of mezcal. The local band plays and it is like a big town party! (Much of this information came from http://www.mexicansugarskull.com/support/dodhistory.html. You can see photos and read more about it there.)
Why is this so awesome? I would say mostly because it is a view of death, the dead, and loss that is refreshing, beautiful, and even fun. We love to mourn in darkness here in America and in many ways I feel it is an approach that can make grief feel even harder. The idea of "poking fun at death" is necessary for emotional relief, and the undeniable love and respect for ancestors in these kinds of observances serves as a reminder that these souls will never be forgotten, and in fact can be assured an offering of some of the most delicious parts of life on Earth.
I think it's important to continue conversations with our ancestors once they enter the spirit world. It doesn't have to be a scary, creepy thing that you'd see in a Halloween movie. Halloween culture in many ways makes the view of our relationship to the dead feel distorted, scary, and unsafe. It doesn't have to be - that's a construct we created, probably from fear of the "unknown". I make a tea called Sacred Senses that helps me connect to spirit. Give it a try, maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised. Listen closely. What can you hear this time of year?
Happy Halloween! Blessed Samhain! Enjoy Dia de los Muertos!
<3, Brit

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