Since ancient times, cultures all over the world have marked the seasonal “wheel of the year” with celebrations reflecting the cycles of nature. (For a wonderful review of those multi-cultural celebrations, Donna Henes talks about them in her book, Celestially Auspicious Occasions.)
At this time of year, as the daylight hours continue to diminish ever so slowly in the Northern Hemisphere, it seems that nature herself is dying as well — the leaves decay, the birds head south, the first frosts appear.
The harvest is brought in, and the fields have been prepared to lay dormant for the long winter. Animals disappear into hibernation, slowing their heartbeats down to simulate death.
In the weeks that follow and well past the Winter Solstice, it does indeed seem that the Earth is poised in that same “in-between” time. Her flora and fauna appear to have died, but we know that they really only lie sleeping, ready to be reborn in the Spring.
In human communities as well, it was considered to be a magical, liminal time.
All Hallow’s Eve, the Celtic holy-day Samhain, and All Soul’s Day all celebrate that pivotal point on the Wheel of the Year when the veil is thought to be the thinnest between the living and the dead.
Food was left out on banquet tables in the villages to appease spirits who might be wandering around and, in the Middle Ages, “mummers” would dress up as ghosts or demons from the “other side,”performing tricks in exchange for food or drink.
In Mexico, El Dia de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is still celebrated with sugary skeletons and picnics on the grave sites of loved ones. The Dahomey of West Africa invite the spirits of their ancestors to join them at a harvest festival called Setting the Table.
Asian cultures honor their ancestors at this time as well. In Vietnam, it’s called “Wandering Soul’s Day”. In China, it’s the Receiving Ancestors Festival. And, in Japan, it is Obon.
You probably didn’t know that there was such a broad, worldwide backstory to the trick-or-treating, scary-costume-wearing traditions of our modern-day Halloween!
Creating your own powerful Samhain/Day of the Dead ritual
It really is a shame that the deep practice of honoring our ancestors has been lost in most celebrations of Halloween nowadays, at least in the U.S.
But don’t let that stop you from creating one of your own for yourself and/or your family!
- Do some research into your ancestry or see if there’s someone in your family who’s created a comprehensive family tree. Make a point to reach out to any “elders” who are still alive and see if they have photos of past generations, maybe even some you’ve never seen before.
- If you’ve got kids, bring them into the project so they have a sense of their heritage. Talk about how they might have their grandmother’s sense of humor or their great-grandfather’s eyes.
- In the spirit of the Day of the Dead, create an altar for your loved ones who have died — parents, grandparents, and your favorite aunts and uncles. You can use a simple cloth, (either their favorite color or your own) and place their pictures and some of their favorite flowers or maybe a ring or necklace they left you. Add some of their favorite food or drink as an offering — my dad loved peanut brittle so that’s always on my altar.
- Light a candle and play some soft music to activate your right brain (the intuitive, emotional side). Be sure to have paper and something to write with, and Kleenex! And if you want to include some beautiful memorial-type readings, definitely email me because I’ve collected many for Day of the Dead ceremonies over the years.
- Settle yourself in front of one of the pictures of your loved ones or ancestors and feel your connection. With paper and pen in hand, write a letter to them, letting them know what you loved or appreciated about them, what you miss, and/or what you learned from them. Fill them in on your life since they departed.
- Offer your letter up to them… you could burn it or bury it, or even just tuck it away somewhere to review whenever you want to feel that connection.
- Then sit quietly and imagine a conversation with them in your heart-mind. What questions would you want to ask if they were still with you? How might they guide you in a particular situation right now? Listen intuitively for their response.
- When you’re complete, thank them for their presence and their wisdom.
As you can imagine, this ritual can be very emotional and poignant. But if you approach this “in-between” time with intention and a commitment to embrace the powerful energies flowing around us now, it can also be uplifting and healing.
So, in addition to all the traditional Halloween festivities, plan on creating your own deep, transformative experience separately, and join those around the world who are doing the same.
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Life & Relationship Coach, Deborah Roth, MA is also a Counseling Astrologer, and Interfaith Minister. She leads women’s New Moon Circles and Full Moon TeleMeditations every month and loves designing creative, meaningful rituals for individuals and couples to energize their lives and relationships.