I started thinking about this post as one that honored traditions of Halloween – or All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and the Day of the Dead celebrations. Inexplicably connected, yet vastly different in their methods and rituals, there is a common thread of honor and respect to the souls of the dearly departed. And to the ancient Celtic Holiday of ‘Samhain’ which traditionally began at sunset on October 31st – still the date of our halloween - and continued through the following day.
Yet as each culture of differing religious and social beliefs took their own path to this observance, it got a little muddled. What part is mischief making for the sake of merryment itself and what part is sacred tradition?
For a listing of the customs in Europe and part of Asia visit Pumpkin Patches. There you will find tidbits like leaving bread, water and a lit lamp on the table before going to bed if you are in Austria. This is so the dead souls can be welcomed back to earth on the night they consider to be magical.
And if you want more information on the significance of the jack-o-lantern read the story of Stingy Jack. This is where old Jack roams through the after life with nothing but a coal in his carved lantern from a turnip to light his path. This Scottish/Irish tradition was stuffed into the memories of the immigrants who came to the shores of America and found gourds and pumpkins more suitable for this endeavor.
Trick or treating isn’t new either. All you have to do is read a little Shakespeare to find mention of the precursor called ‘souling’ when food was exchanged for prayers for the dead – called ‘Hollowmas’. In ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ from 1593, Shakespeare writes: “like a beggar at Hollowmas”.
But I had difficulty finding much about this type of celebration in India or France.
In India I could find a practice among Hindus known as ‘Tarpan’ in which the family offers tributes to the deceased. This day is as individual as the offerings, depending on the day the person died. But there was also something called ‘Pitru Paksha’ or (fortnight of ancestors), when the families honor all ancestors during the autumn.
And even in France there is ‘la fete de Toussaint’ or All Saints’ Day, when flowers – generally chrysanthemums – are placed on the graves.
The difference is the way in which we celebrate.
In many cultures there is much frivolity, especially in America. We have generally lost the connection to the serious side of remembrance and honor for those who came before us. We mostly want to play, scare the wits out of our friends and neighbors, be scared ourselves, eat way too much chocolate and disguise ourselves as something or someone vastly different than we appear in everyday life.
We want to watch movies about the strangeness of werewolves, vampires, haunted houses, ghosts, ghouls, witches, zombies and the occult – my favorite being ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. I personally do not care for blood, guts, and gore. I’m much more interested in the type of horror movie that is thought provoking and slightly strange. A more recent example of horror movies I like would be ‘The Priest’ or ‘Orphan’.
In America we like to take haunted hayrides, tour haunted houses and get lost in corn mazes. We decorate with fruits of the harvest – corn stalks, pumpkins, colored leaves, images of our favorite scary creatures such as black cats, bats, witches and broomsticks.
What any of this has to do with observances of the pre-deceased is nil. It stems from the druid beliefs of the veil between here and the afterlife being thinnest on this night, and the necessity to disguise oneself as an evil spirit in order to trick a real spirit on a journey to do harm into looking somewhere else. Give him treats – food and drink – of course, but make him afraid of you as well.
In other cultures, these are not cohesive thoughts. These are serious days of showing one’s respect and remembrance. That is where the two ideas get lost in translation.
The French are starting to come around to the idea of Halloween though – possibly due to the sheer fun of such a holiday – not to mention the consumption of wine and chocolate! Or maybe due to efforts of those in the nineties – nineteen nineties to be sure! I do not think they have evolved as far as wearing costumes, but basic black works great for this type of venture. Just be sure to know that it should be a party designated as such, and don’t confuse frivolity with ‘la fete de Toussaint’.
Oddly enough, I was in Paris in early November a few years ago. I noticed the pots of chrysanthemums on the graves and mausoleums, but did not know the significance of why they were so many freshly placed along the walks and tombs. Now I do.
My friends and I dedicated most of one day to our ‘Day of the Dead’ as we referred to it. We started in the catacombs and continued through Pere-Lachaise - said to be the most expensive real estate in Paris. One friend was delighted to find her beloved ‘Abelard and Heloise’ there.
Another found Chopin and my friend Paula and I found Jim Morrison - a bit of an American icon.
Maybe in Paris – City of Light – there is not enough darkness for the ghouls to inhabit her streets.