Day of the Dead
Lots of people think Halloween is just costumes and candy with no real meaning behind them. But since the days of the Aztec people, there has been celebration in Mexico at this time of year for Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It's a celebration that got moved from summer to fall by the Spanish Christians who were trying to "marry" the Aztec's ancient celebration with All Soul's Day-- in the effort to "tame" or "christianize" the cultural heritage they encountered in Mexico. But I must say BRAVO to the traditions that have evolved here-- it's definitely more like the Mexican people said, "Okay, fine, you can have the date you want, but this celebration is all ours!" And they've made Day of the Dead an amazing tradition.
From my own experience with this celebration, I can tell you that it's the only way I've seen that humanizes death and all the long-term aspects of dealing with life after the death of a loved one. Death isn't glorified. Death isn't feared. Our loved ones on the other side are leading live parallel to what we live here-- it's a continuation-- there is a veil between here and there. And around the time of Halloween, that veil gets pulled back!
It is believed that the pungent smell of the marigold flowers-- blooming like crazy in Mexico at this time of year-- is the smell that calls the dead back to us. It is believed that the flocks of migrating monarch butterflies are the souls of the dead returning. Altars or ofrendas are built in homes and stores and on the streets during the entire month of October. These ofrendas hold photos of deceased loved ones, candies, sugar candy skulls decorated like fancy masks, candles, flowers, bread, fruit, and items that might have meant a lot to the deceased. These ofrendas can be simple and beautiful or elaborate and stunning! The grave yards are cleaned up. Individual families take care of the grave stones of their loved ones. The grave yard is decorated with light and flowers. The head stones are cleaned and made into ofrendas, too. Food is brought, music is played, and a major celebration to honor the dead happens -- starting Halloween night going on through November 2nd.
Children don't fear death. The whole culture understands the long term need to support the living who are bereaved and forever without the dead. Halloween *MEANS* something. Here are some links to places with more info and lots of photos:
Now, there are many ways to use writing and poetry as process during the Halloween season. You find many cliches and "silly" works of writing about tricks and treats during this season. I know as a bereaved parent who painfully misses her child during this time of year that Halloween is so much more than that. It's a time of reflection and re-definition of those cliches. And all of that re-definition is part of mapping our own personal grief to try and figure out how to survive day to day. In that light, I offer the following:
Time and again the chill comes. It creeps over me, the crisp wind and the call of the whispy ghosts off the white caps of the water. Down in my bones, I feel them, porous, open, and calling for warmth from hot cider, heated blankets, heavy coats, the healing touch of my husband's hands. Yet, even when I drink all that in, even when it is soaking the marrow of my bones, I still ache from the chill. There are people who think your bones warm up again after the death of a child, but I know now that they are wrong. It has been three winters since my son's flesh and blood met with the heat of the crematorium, and I am still chilled.
Ofrenda. It's such an interesting word. An altar, an offering. Fruit, bread, sugar skulls, marigolds, photos, candles, prayers, simple slips of paper with the names of a loved ones written in a shaky hand. Pungent fragrance, light of fire, migration of the monarch butterflies, all calling the dead to come home, back to the hearts of those who miss them so. Halloween. Not just snickers bars and plastic, store bought costumes. But rather, October 31st is the witching hour when the spirits of our dead children lead the envoy of souls back through the veil, lead the dance and mirth and celebration at the graveyards, remembering the earthly love of mothers and fathers, grandemama and grandepapa, all coming back together for Dia de los Meurtos, Day of the Dead.