Let’s face it: aside from heart-attack-inducing freak-show houses of horror, Halloween has become cutesy-spooky and pumpkin-y. On All Hallow’s Eve, adult ghosts, goblins and witches sex it up—babydoll style—and obscure their essence as frightening creatures of the night, while the zombified go for kitschy horror. In short, America does Day of the Dead light.
In contrast, during the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, the living immerse them-selves in death by painting their faces in a decorative skull motifs, becoming dancing skeletons, building shrines to their deceased loved ones, and picnicking on the graves of dead family members.
If we limit our Halloween celebration to jack-o-lanterns, pumpkin spice lattes and sexy-spooky costumes, we’re missing out on the chance to go deeper, not only like our neighbors to the South, but like our ancestors and modern-day pagans.
Halloween originated as Samhain (pronounced: Sah-win or Sah-ween), an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain—October 31—the souls of the dead returned to Earth. During Samhain the boundary between the spirit world and the human world is easily crossed. Communicating with ancestors and departed loved ones is easier and it is the perfect time for divination and prophecy. In other words, during Samhain, we can talk to dead people.
So how can we bridge the gap and still enjoy our perky, pumpkin-patchy Halloween while also delving deeper like the Celts? Incorporating a few spiritual elements from Samhain into your candy-corn filled Halloween can infuse the day with a new mean- ing without abandoning tricks or treats.
Ancestors’ Altar. Create an altar or shrine honoring loved ones you have lost and dec- orate it with mementos and symbols of Samhain and the harvest. Draw inspiration from Day of the Dead shrines. Feature photos, heirlooms, and sentimental keep- sakes. Adorn your altar with skulls, skeletons, or grave etchings and harvest produce, like pumpkins or decorative squash. You can also add dried leaves, acorns, and marigolds.
Ancestor Stories. Explore your ancestry by visiting grave sites of your ancestors or by researching your family tree. When you visit a family grave, create a headstone etching with a pencil and a piece of paper.
Feast of the Dead. Host a silent supper, one of the traditional Samhain celebrations. The meal honors the dead, and guests remain silent. Place an empty chair at the head of your table and bring offerings of food for ancestors who might wish to join you. After the silent supper, sing and dance, speak the names of the deceased, and share stories.
Renewal Bonfire. Stoke up a purifying bonfire. In old world Europe during traditional Samhain celebrations, the country- side was aglow with bonfires, marking the transition from the bountiful days of the harvest to the frosty decay and darkness of winter. The fires fended off prowling evil spirits and cleared away dead debris so the ground would be ready for planting in springtime.
Reflection. Reflect on the past year and your regrets, challenges, accomplishments, adventures, and the ways in which you’ve grown. Write down thoughts, feelings and behaviors that you want to release and scorch your list in a Samhain fire. Then create a list of ideas, hopes and dreams for the coming year.
Divine Guidance. Samhain—during which the boundary between the spirit world and the human world thins—is the perfect time to practice divination. You can use Tarot, runes or Scrying to seek guidance for the year to come. Scrying is the ancient art of revelation that helps you get in touch with your unconscious mind to clearly see your needs, dreams and goals. Stare into a reflective surface such as a mirror or a bowl of water and images and scenes will begin to emerge.
Death Cafe?. Host a death cafe? in which you gather people to openly talk about death and dying over tea and goodies. Participants share beliefs, curiosities, and fears. Serve traditional Samhain fare: soul cakes, remembrance cookies, and colcannon.
Monica Emerich, a Lafayette resident who is inspired by Celtic traditions, but doesn’t identify as a pagan or a Wiccan, practices deep reflection and meditation during Samhain. When I asked about communing with her ancestors, she said, “It’s a time of remembrance. Don’t worry; your dead grandmother won’t appear in your living room.”
Samhain turns our attention to the spirit world and reminds us that one day we too will perish. It is a time during which we reflect on the cycle of life and death. But if that’s too heavy you can always just dress up as a sexy pumpkin, and celebrate your gorgeous gourd-ness. A perky pumpkin is sure to ward off any marauding souls from the otherworld.