A FEW WORDS ON DAY OF THE DEAD
By the time I was 35 both my parents and my best friend were dead. Death is sadly all around us. During the pandemic, I lost two more close friends, not to Covid: one was literally hit by a truck; the other died from heart failure. He was the only one of my friends to die from semi-natural causes.
I’ve written elsewhere that when someone you love dies, you never really get “over it;” you learn to get around it. You plan your day; you have some fun at night; and you don’t dwell on the loss. Usually that works, but sometimes things make me remember my parents and I have to struggle not to tear up.
We all think we know about the Day of the Dead, Halloween, and All Saints. In the Catholic tradition, the entire month of November is given over to the remembrance of the departed.
But the tradition goes back beyond the coming of Christianity. Our Celtic ancestors celebrated the festival of Samhain at the end of October and the beginning of November. It was a harvest festival, but it also marked the start of a new year, and the division of darkness and light. The entire harvest had to be brought in by Samhain so that none of it would be at risk of the dark forces of winter.
Samhain was also a time when the traveling dead could visit the living. They could speak to us in dreams of Halloween.
Pope Gregory the Great urged his Christian missionaries not to destroy local pagan customs, but to sanctify them to the light of Christ. So, Samhain became the festival of All Saints, on November 1, and the night before, All Hallows Eve, Halloween. We celebrate now with candy for children, but behind it all, the dead cling to us or we to them. They speak, but we do not know how to answer; we cannot fully articulate our loss.
And so we wait, from year to changing year, celebrating the seasons as long as the light lasts.