Tis the Season! No, not that season, although I am sure that we will be inundated with Christmas Holiday stuff soon. But this coming week, we are invited to pay special attention to our dead. Summer is ended. The harvest is in. The days grow shorter and shorter. The evening light plays with mischievous shadows (or are the shadows playing with the evening light?).
The Celtic tradition of Samhain dating back some 6,000 years to the Neolithic era celebrated these three days as marking the shift from light to dark in the course of a year. During the dark half of the year, the Otherworld, where the dead lived, was very close. Samhain celebrations were a time of truce. People came together to tell stories, feast, participate in rituals and, one way or another, commune with their dead. At this time of year, the dead, always present, were accessible. Some of the customs live on in today’s trick-or-treat, Jack-O-Lanterns, costumes, skeletons and ghosts.
Along about the 5th century, the Church worked to absorb Samhain by declaring the first two days of November to be Christian feast days: All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The Church was serious—All Saints was a holy day of obligation—it was a mortal sin to miss Mass. It used to be the custom to go to the graveside of loved ones on All Souls Day. I can remember going with my grandmother a few times before I started first grade. The gravestones were like a forest; I remember keeping a tight grip on her coat.
When I was 10 my mother’s father died—Daniel Francis Sullivan. We called him Mompa. The story went that my older brother could not say grandpa, so they became Mom and Mompa. (I wonder how he felt about that?) I had seen him just before he died; been at the wake and the funeral Mass. I asked my grandmother where he was. I will never forget her answer: “He’s not here but don’t worry—he didn’t go away.” Gone but not gone. A few years later I saw her sitting by herself during a family reunion. I was worried that she was lonely. I tried to get her to rejoin the group. She looked at me, smiled, and said: “I’m okay. I’m here with my dead.”
To all appearances, we live in a hyper-rational society—what Otherworld?—but I sense that we are not so removed from it as we would like to believe. Consider the rich celebrations of the Day of the Dead. TV shows. Movies. Every Sunday, Christians of many denominations recite the Creed, affirming their belief in the Communion of Saints—the living and the dead.
Call it superstition. Call it crazy. I am happy that periodically the membrane between this world and the Otherworld becomes more permeable. Makes reunions possible. Ancestors. Access to insight. Worlds bigger than what is available to just the left side of my brain.
The Conversation: Halloweens Celebration of Mingling With the Dead Has Roots in Ancient Celtic Clebrations of Samhainh