Tonight marks the beginning of the Dark Half of the year, and to the Celts, it is known as Samhain. When the holiday was Christianized, we began to celebrate it as Halloween….
The meaning of the this night and the day that follows has changed little over the centuries. Our concept and understanding of Death, however, has transformed. In spite of its pagan origins, Halloween has been well adopted and is still celebrated widely in Europe, Mexico and in North America. One thing that all that celebrate have in common is that this night brings with it the thinning of the boundary between worlds – our world and the world of our ancestors, the spirits.
“Samhain” (sow-ihn) is Old Irish and means, roughly, ‘summer’s end’. The pre-Christian Celts would light a bonfire after the harvest had been brought in. While it burned, all other hearth fires in the village would be extinguished. The bonfire became the source of the new hearth fires as it was common to all the villagers. The fire also signified the light that would hold off the dark and cold of Winter.
The practice of divination was also common on this night because the veil between worlds was thin. Most often the issues divined involved future lovers. The Western window of the house was left open as an invitation to family members lost over the year. For the Celts, it was also the celebration of the new year. These fires have been lit through the centuries and continue on the British Iles today.
El Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico from midnight on the 31st of October until the second of November. Symbols of death pervade the streets, however, it is not a celebration of fear, but rather, the celebration of those that have died. Altars honouring their memory are erected and feasts are held.
As our culture has moved away from the land, we seem to have also lost our understanding of Death and the source of this and many of our traditions that celebrate and acknowledge the Cycle of Life. We fear Death, put it away in hospitals and try everything possible to avoid age – the precursor if we are lucky – even at the expense of our health. The dark stories of our ancestors are sanitized for our children and we promote this illusion that we are somehow protecting them from the evils of the world which include Death itself. We shield them as long as we can, instead of allowing them to see their place in the world and come to understand it. We cannot teach what we do not know ourselves.
There is a verse in a song I have grown to love:
These walls have eyes
Rows of photographs
And faces like mine
Who do we become
Without knowing where
We started from
~ Dixie Chicks and Neil Finn
Even in the earliest days of Christianity, in the mystic tradition that survived through the Renaissance and into our own time, there has been an acceptance of the dual nature of the Universe. Underlying this duality is an unknowable Unity achieved only through direct experience after great contemplation and meditation. Most of us born into the Christian tradition know so little about it and few likely realize that some traditions we see as uniquely Eastern or ancient, exist in our own culture, if we just look deeply enough.
So what does this have to do with Death and All Hallow’s Eve? As our ancestors that lived close to the land knew, Death is a natural and necessary part of Life. If we embrace it, we have the opportunity to live more fully. If we celebrate it, we can value it subtle gifts such as the Autumn colour and the return of the Light in Spring. Most of all, we can value the exquisite gift of Time with those that we love while they are with us and revel in their memory when they have passed on. The faces on the wall of grandma’s house are our own… Is that not worth celebrating?