Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Day Out of Time

It has long fascinated me that two very different cultures in two very different parts of the world developed a very similar custom for honoring the dead, and celebrated it on the same day of the year.

There are more similarities than differences between the Celtic Samhain (Halloween) and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Similarities include setting a place at the table for those who have died during the past year as a way of signifying that we remember them and offer them one last meal on their journey into the next world. Taking time to remember those people by telling stories about them or singing a favorite song of theirs is another way of saying farewell.

Rather than being macabre, it is a way of acknowledging that one day, no matter how good they look now, our bodies will wear out and our spirits will go somewhere else. That is why Day fo the Dead celebrations include things like skull cookies, a special bread, picnics in graveyards, altars in remembrance of those who have passed. I like it that they use one of my favorite flowers, marigolds, to help mark the path for spirits to visit. And I like the smell of copal, the incense they use.

The Celts would have used evergreen branches bundled together as smudge sticks (incense), they carved jack-o-lanterns to light their way and scare off evil spirits. They also considered it a day out of time, with the name actually meaning summer's end, the day between summer and winter. Some say that the druids held court on that day to resolve disputes and lead ceremonies.

Just as the Mexican tradition has special foods prepared for Day of the Dead, the trick or treat tradition comes from the way that people used to visit each other's homes on Samhain to remember the dead and offer prayers, then "soul cakes" were offered to guests. Masks play a part of both traditions. When we mask and wear costumes, for a brief time, we can become someone else. In this way, we give our selves a day out of time in our usual identities.

I have participated in both Day of the Dead Celebrations and Samhain celebrations where participants were led through a spiral dance. Some symbols translate well in different cultures.

When the church overlaid an official holiday over the old holidays, it became known as All Saints Day, which is immediately followed by All Soul's Day, thus October 31 became the Eve of the Hallowed.

Since the Celtic tradition held that a day begins at sunset, not sunrise, this date also signified the long night when summer turned into winter, and thus great fires were lit for the celebrations of this turning point of the year. Fires and candles in both traditions guided the paths of the dead and the living as they intertwined.

In Ireland, the first fire of the new year was set on the hill of Tara, where the kings, chieftans and druids all gathered, and when people on other hilltops saw that fire, they lit their ritual bonfires. The change was considered so great that they considered the day between to belong to neither season, and thus was a day out of time.

It has long been believed that this day, being one where the veil is thinnest between the realms, which allows spirits to pass freely from one to the other, also permits more psychic phenomena and it is held that readings done on this day can be particularly meaningful.

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