Honoring Our Ancestors

By | November 2, 2009

All is Vanity, painting by by C. Allan Gilbert, image in the public domain, edited at Photobucket

Honoring Our Ancestors

Last week we celebrated the end of Summer, Samhain in the Wiccan tradition, and the end of the harvest season. Hopefully, we have made careful calculations to distribute the wealth of the harvest season to last through the cold winter months. This is the traditional end of the agricultural year, and no additional crops are expected to be planted until next spring. In many areas, the frost and cold prohibit gardening, and the harvests of what we have planted, we hope will last through the dark months of winter and continue to last into the warmer months.

The End of Summer is also the day before the more serious celebration in which we honor our ancestors. Many times these two holidays are meshed into one celebration, being only one day apart, and the celebration is said to be a time when the veils between the living and the dead are the thinnest.

Today we honor life, the living, and the blessings of youth in this time of the final agricultural harvest of the season. We have gathered together the crops which provide life for us, and this day marks how we have passed the test of life, in planning for our health and safety during the colder months. Passing this test gives us the proof we need, that we have cared for ourselves enough to provide for our food and shelter throughout the winter and spring until the next harvest.

Today is a much more solemn service, in which we go a more traditional path and honor our ancestors. In modern times, many of us in the United States of America see this as simply the day after Halloween. Our tummies are full of too much candy, or we’re trying to get a little sleep after that wild costume party we went to the night before or, perhaps, we’re simply waking up with the sun and reminiscing about the adorable children in their costumes who came by the house, trick-or-treating last night.

Many of us recall, at one time or another, Halloween being referred to as All Hallow’s Eve. In the same sense as New Year’s Eve, it is the evening before a hallowed day. And yet, in our Halloween festivities, we rarely celebrate today, the day after Halloween. A hallowed day in which we honor our ancestors. As we enter the dark season of winter, it is time to remember our family members who went before us into the realm of the hallowed, eternal rest or sleep. Those who have passed on to leave us our own legacy to continue as we walk in the ghostly footsteps of their souls.

Thinking about our ancestors can bring great emotions to us and, perhaps for this reason, the element of ghosts and goblins has taken over the seasonal celebrations. And yet, for some cultures, today and tomorrow remain important days which honor our past in a protective way. It is said that this time of year is when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, and that it is easier to summon our ancestors at this time than at any other time of year.

Why would someone want to summon an ancestor? There are several reasons, including the need to bond with the past or, perhaps, a specific need or question that a relative who has passed would have the needed expertise in answering. Another reason may be a desire to say goodbye to a loved one, or to ease their transition to the after-world in a way which we feel would allow them to rest in peace. Summer’s end, as we have marked it, is a time for agricultural harvests to be completed in the areas which have very cold winters, such as the ancient Celtic regions.

However, our neighbor to the south of us in the United States of America, also has a long-standing tradition of honoring the ancestors of the Aztec people on the day of the dead, Dia de los Muertos, or festival of Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead. The celebrations are simply to welcome the ghosts of the dead to visit. The saying is when the spirits come back to visit the world of the living, their path must not be slippery with tears.

November 1st, is a celebration for children who have passed, and November 2nd is a day spent in the company of the dead. Candles are a strong symbol at this time, and can be seen in the cemeteries of the families. Flowers, particularly marigolds, are traditional and it is thought that the scent of flowers and food help to guide the ghosts of the dead. Photographs of the dead are part of the altar, as are tequila and mescal for adult ghosts and toys for the ghosts of the children. It is said that salty water can help to protect against any spirits who have not been called. Special meals and food is made at this time of year, including bread and candy skulls.

Offering foods for ghosts is not limited to the Aztecs, this custom is found in other cultures internationally. Autumn festivals, many in November, are celebrated for similar reasons in a number of traditions. All Hallow’s Day and All Saints Day are actually Catholic festivals, and Jewish tradition celebrates fooling the angel of death to pass over their homes. And, our carved, pumpkin jack-o-lanterns are said to guard us against spirits who have not been called.

In fact, the scary outfits and theatrics seen this time of year are really not meant to scare people. They are meant to frighten uncalled spirits into staying away. Perhaps this is something we must remind ourselves, as we go around “trick or treating”.

We are told that ghosts are different from spirits, in that ghosts are formerly living people or creatures, and spirits are of some other element. The salt water and jack-o-lanterns are said to guard against spirits, who may be elementals, nature spirits, faeries, deities, demons or angels. These spirits are treated with great caution, because they can range from being divine to demonic, and they have a reputation of being extremely strange and powerful. Their motivations are not human, so they are said to be unpredictable from the human point of view. At this time of the year, with such a thin veil, many cultures ask the spirits to retreat so that a connection with human, ghosts of ancestors can be made.

Ghosts are not always our personal ancestors, although they are usually the ancestors of others. They are said to sometimes appear when we have invited our own ancestors instead, and are similarly treated with caution because they are not people whom we knew or with whom we have a bond. Some are people who are not resting peacefully due to some tragedy associated with their death, an error in their burial or perhaps an unfulfilled task here on earth. Some appear to be sent with a message for the living, and a few are annoying or, as believed in some countries, drain energy from the living.

As our beloved, dead ancestors are invited to visit us in our world, we recall Pagan traditions that began their journey into the afterlife. Women have been sent off to their rest with a buried blessing and, perhaps, red ocher on her grave. Men have been sent off on their journey with a blessing that asks the four elements to leave the body and return to the atmosphere, and perhaps their favorite tools so they will have work in the Summer-land.

May your harvest celebrations be shared with your own loved ones through the hallowed veil.

Blessed Be!

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All is Vanity, 1892
painting by Domingo Alvarez Enciso
edited at Photobucket
Wikimedia public domain

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