October 31st. All Hallows’ Eve. A tradition with roots in cultures much older than our own.
The ancient Celtic people began the celebration of Samhain, to honor the harvest and to mark the coming of the darker, colder season. They believed that this time of year coincided with a thinning of the veil. A break down between the physical world and everything that lies beyond it. Their festivals were marked by the lighting of bonfires and dressing in costume to ward off spirits. To cast away the dark, to confuse the evil intent on harming them.
So much ceremony around the separation between the living and the dead.
There is an old legend about a man called Stingy Jack, whose restless spirit could not enter Heaven or Hell. People would carve ghoulish faces into turnips and potatoes and set them out to repel him. This is why we carve jack-o-lanterns. It was Irish and Scottish natives who settled in America that discovered that pumpkins made a much better vessel for their jack-o-lanterns. And the tradition continues today.
The Mexican holiday The Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos) also begins on the 31st of October. This tradition originated thousands of years ago with the Aztecs and surrounding cultures. Part of their belief system was that once a loved one passed away they had to make it through nine harrowing levels in order to find peace in the after life. Family members would leave out food and other offerings to help them on their way.
These traditions have changed over the years, in Ireland and in Mexico. In all of the places around the world that they have been carried to. I certainly don't claim to be an expert, but I do find these origins fascinating. Such different cultures with such strong parallels this time of year. One welcoming and aiding the spirits of the dead, the other fending them off. But both very much aware of something beyond the ordinary. Beyond the seen.
Of course now instead of leaving treats out for the dead, we pass them out to children dressed like ghosts and goblins and their ilk. Most people dress up for the fun of it, with little thought of spirits…
And while I am not preoccupied with ghosts I cannot help but to think about all of the symbolism, in the masks, and disguises, and offerings. What we choose to wear on this one night of the year. The choice to be more horrible, more sensual, more whimsical than any other night.
I wonder if the masks are reveal more than they hide. I wonder about what is haunting each of us. If not the ghosts of the dead, then the ghosts of our creation.
What if this one night allows us a chance to see beyond the walls that comfort and contain us. The cages we have agreed upon, and helped to fortify? What if the thinning of the veil is not meant just for the spirits of the dead, but for the living. To catch a glimpse of all the mystery that lies all around us, all of the time.
Something the ancient Celts and Aztecs had in common, aside from these festivals was their proximity to the land, to the rhythms of the natural world. They were not defined by agreements within a society built to control, so much as they were tied to the land and the seasons and the shifting of life and death around them. Living by the waxing and the waning of the moon, the rising and the setting of the sun. It is no wonder that they could feel things that modern people don’t (can’t, or won’t).
So tomorrow, while you are handing out candy or putting the finishing touches on your costume, maybe you will take a moment to look a little closer. Maybe you will face some of your ghosts. Maybe you will see what is beyond the veil.
Enjoy the holiday, and keep an open mind...the moon is nearly new.