Sometimes an idea grows so large you can’t wrap your head around it in only one day. Sometimes a holiday requires multiple days. Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Day of the Dead give us a chance to deal with life and death, and to give the boundary between the two the space (and time) that it deserves. If you like your holidays to be nothing more than an excuse to eat, or party, or be with friends, now is the time to stop reading. Those are wonderful things – we need our excuses – but at the end of the day they are only the byproducts of a proper “holy day.”
One of my favorite descriptions of the Holy is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” that which is wholly other, fearful, and fascinating. The phrase was coined by Rudolf Otto, a 19th century Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion. He thought some such experience of the holy or the numinous was at the root of all religion. In just such a way, I think the triple holiday coming up gives us an opportunity to deal with death in all of its ambivalent glory. Whether you are Christian or not, I think this is a true holy day, and one not to be missed.
Each of the three festivals has its own history, though the names we give them all derive from the same Christian feast day. Halloween, is an 18th century Scottish contraction of All Hallow Even, the night before All Saints’ Day. It coincides with Samhain, the Celtic new year and beginning of winter. Day of the Dead (Spanish: Dia de los Muertos) observances have been going in on Southern Mexico for two to three thousand years, though they settled on November second, falling in with Roman Catholic observance of All Souls’ Day. The Christian holy day of All Saints’ has been broadly observed on November 1 since the 8th and 9th century and observed as a multiple day festival since the 1400s. With such ancient roots, I cannot claim to tell you what the three days should be about. I can say what they mean to me in a way that I hope respects some of the many traditions that have grown up around them.
First, I think we must respect that they are three very different days. No one has an uncomplicated relationship with death. Perhaps one day will be more important to you, but I truly believe each of us can gain something from engaging in all three. Each of us can benefit from meditating on death in a way that brings us more fully in touch with the fearful and and wonderful mystery – that allows us mental, emotional, and spiritual space to deal with our own ghosts. That said, here is my threefold observance.
Halloween gives us a chance to think about the “thinning of the veil” between life and death. We recognize the importance things past have on things present. We pause to recognize how thin the line is between living and dying. Halloween is a holiday of contingence and chance and powerlessness. It is a time when the dead come to visit the living. We bring out sweets to placate and masks to scare the dead. We flirt with our fear of death and of those who have gone before. Halloween unsettles us, as it should. Before you can deal with your dead (those you have lost) and your mortality, you must be aware of them.
All Saints’ Day flips our fear, for it reminds us that our dead have helped us, too. Despite the workings of the unknown, our loved ones have reached out to change the world we live in. People have power. Christians celebrate God reaching into history, not only in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of countless saints. They are our examples and our inspiration. They include not only those recognized by the church, but everyone who has shed light in our lives. Christians particularly remember those who gave their lives to do this – those who were martyred for love or truth or hope. All people can remember that our dead continue to helps us, that some of them truly helped the world, and that we can, too.
On the Day of the Dead, the living go to visit their dead. It is the opposite of Halloween, for on this day, we accept death. Instead of scaring or propitiating the dead, we dwell among them. We celebrate them, whether they helped or harmed us. We recognize them for who they are and for all of those forces beyond their control that they struggled with. We talk with those we no longer talk to. It is a day to be reconciled with the past, a day for forgiveness, acceptance, and peace. It is a day to anticipate our own passing from this world. We hope to leave it a better place. And we hope we go to a better country.
When I do things right, I leave the threefold holiday knowing my dead a little better – and knowing my own life a little better, because of the dead. I hope this year’s visit with the dead will help you, too.