Nights grow longer, the air grows chill, and trees drop their leaves. It is a time of nature dying back, and it brings our own beloved dead to mind. In Mexico, the day after Halloween is the Day of the Dead, when children eat little sugar skulls, families gather to tend the graves of their departed loved ones, and feasting and celebration abound. What a lovely way to make death less frightening and alienating!
Many cultures throughout the world honor the time from around Oct. 18 through Nov. 2 as the Season of the Ancestors. Luisah Teish, an expert on African-Caribbean folklore and celebration, shares many ways to honor our own ancestors. Share the mystery and beauty of this season, and make better friends with the cycles of life by finding out how to hold a Feast for the Ancestors, do a helpful graveyard cleaning ritual, and more, right here:
The Graveyard Visit
Even if your own loved ones are buried far away, you can visit a nearby cemetery during this time of year to do a little thoughtful grave-tending. Bring two bags with you: One for picking up trash, and one for removing dead flowers or plants to compost. You may also want to bring a small broom for sweeping away cobwebs and debris, and a little offering for the departed: Perhaps a few dried flowers, or a pretty stone or shell.
Choose a grave that looks as if it needs some care and attention and do your best to tidy it up. Notice the name and dates of your chosen grave. When you have cleaned up the grave, leave your offering. Take a moment to send some affectionate thoughts or prayers to the departed one whose grave you have tended, who may have been neglected by their own relations.
Feast for the Ancestors
This is the perfect time of year to give some thought to the foods your own particular ancestors might have enjoyed. What foods do you associate with your grandparents or great-grandparents, or more distant generations? What is your ethnic background? Caitís son is part Finnish, with many relatives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so pasties–tender little handheld meat pies–might be a food he would think of. Cait has Celtic ancestry, so potatoes and cabbage always spring to her mind.
Consider holding a festive Ancestor Feast, complete with costumes and dishes appropriate to your particular bloodline. This can become a fascinating and educational process for children, who usually get into researching, decorating and dressing up. You can set a place at the table for your own dear departed and tell stories about them, so that the younger generation can share the memories and have a deeper sense of who their people were.
At Halloween time, Luisah Teish celebrates her Afro-Caribbean heritage by decorating to reflect the connection between the harvest of Nature and her ancestors. She places an Ancestral Harvest altar on her porch that includes corn, yams, squashes, and gourds, along with Dia de los Meurtos sugar skulls. She also includes four small bowls filled with soil with a differently-colored candle in each one to represent earth, water, fire, and air.
Halloween marks a time when the veil that separates the world of the dead from the world of the living is thought to be thin, allowing for visits from the spirits of our departed ones. As Teish says, ďAt this time of year, when all the ancestors are roaming the streets, we pay homage to all those who have gone before us, because they truly make us what we are.Ē In deference to her own ancestors, she sprinkles her Ancestral Harvest altar with wild rice and wine. Think of ways you could honor your own heritage.
Inspired by Jump Up by Luisah Teish (Conari Press, 2000).