Samhain and The Day of the Dead

Try to imagine not knowing the science that lies behind the changes of seasons. Now imagine yourself living in a small village a few thousand years ago. Your community depends upon farming, hunting and gathering to survive. The year’s bounty is almost harvested. The days are growing shorter, the nights longer and the cold more insistent. Falling leaves prove the genius of trees. These giants know what’s coming and remind us of the great change that looms.

Remember, you don’t know the science of the seasons. You don’t know for certain that spring will return, although it always has. What you do know is that every year, the earth has become frozen. You know that most plants will die or become dormant, and unless shelter is secured you’ll freeze.

The History of Samhain

This is a time of change, one marked by the movement of the sun to a point halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is a special "Cross Quarter" day, observed by humanity for thousands of years, but most familiarly known to us as Samhain, or Halloween.

Samhain was the New Year in old agrarian calendars. It makes perfect sense to end the year with the final harvest, beginning the new with the icy freeze of winter. Anything left in the fields after Samhain stayed there as charity to the Earth, travelers, animals and, of course, our ancestors.

Offerings of food to the dead were common in ancient cultures. Hunger in the afterlife seems to have been a strong belief. In ancient Egypt, drawings of feasts on tomb walls were actually designed to provide sustenance for the departed. Elaborate mortuary bureaucracies were developed to place food outside of tombs, ensuring that the departed stayed sated, happy and where they belonged. Very little was worse than a hungry, irritable ancestor showing up for dinner with the family.

In some Oriental cultures, ancestors are still given elaborate gifts of food and money to help them prosper and stay fed in the afterlife. The belief behind all of this is a powerful one; happy ancestors make for happy descendants.

We’ve lost some of the magic of our past, but the observances of Halloween, and then over the next two days, Day of the Dead, help to keep that magic alive.

We look to our ancestors with gratitude for the pathways blazed during their lifetimes. We also recognize the reality of our own destinations and hope to be honored when that time comes.
It makes great sense to celebrate our predecessors at the crossroads between a living earth and one that seems to be lying in deep slumber. During this time, the veil between realms was thought to be thinner than usual. The departed could mingle with the living for a day or so, seen or unseen.

Instead of being a terrifying thought, this brought a sense of comfort to those who held these beliefs and it still does. It allowed them to feel the essence of friends and family members long gone. It brought to the forefront the inevitability of our own mortality. In turn, this clarity allows us to embrace reality without living in fear. Living in fear isn’t really living at all.

The Day of the Dead is a tradition that carries on the joys of life and the celebration of being here now.

To the outsider, it may seem morbid, or just plain creepy. Children are given candy skulls and death related artwork appears everywhere. Statues of skeleton couples get married in dioramas, as their bony families proudly look on.

Real families scrub the graves of relatives and picnic next to headstones. They stay late into the night; drinking, laughing and making music. For one evening, the cemetery is a city of party lights and festivities, bringing the noise and excitement of the living back to those who once lived it so passionately.

A Celebration of Existence

Participants take time to consider their lives. Not everyone present that night will attend next year. Those who’ve passed into the mystery are remembered and honored. Favorite foods are offered and music played. After all, they’re listening. Some laugh, some cry, but all hearts are full. Life is powerful.

For the next hours, the worlds of the living and of the dead are merged. Life is embraced in all its varied forms, even though the darkness of winter encroaches. The mystery is held close. Existence is unimaginably precious.

For the next few days, as you stand in your village - wherever it may be - look around and try to forget our modern age with all its certainty. Instead, be a child of Nature. Look with wonder as did our ancestors and maybe, for just a moment, you’ll feel the life, love and wonder of those who have come before and then be filled with unbridled optimism for the future.

May this harvest season bring you all bountiful joy.

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Suzanneandal, posted on November 1, 2015

I have been a reader of Mo's articles for a few years. His depth and breadth of knowledge is a valuable asset and Gaiam readers can benefit greatly by following his learned man. Savor the information you are about to receive through his contributions.

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