Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Day of the Dead

I missed my post a couple of weeks ago, and it was completely by accident. I actually wrote the entry below and scheduled it for publication, but I didn't hit publish. Instead I kept it as a draft. Now, I've been known to do this before, but I always always check on my post day to make sure the entry came up.

Except for last time. Instead, I was lying in bed suffering from the flu, and rather than sharing thoughts about the Day of the Dead, I was wishing I was dead.

I have recovered, more or less. My plan for this week was to write something about the Women Writing the West Conference I attended a couple of weeks ago,  (which is where I picked up the influenza of death.) But I like my Dia de los Muertos/Samhain entry and felt sad at the idea of not using it. So here it is, Dear Reader, two weeks late. I hope you enjoy it notwithstanding.


Today (Nov. 2, 2017), my friends, is the Day of the Dead, a Spanish/Aztec celebration much beloved down here in southern Arizona. Día de los Muertos is a day for remembering your loved ones who have passed on. It’s like a family reunion, with your dead ancestors as the guests of honor. Day of the Dead is a joyful time, with parades, music, costumes, lots of food, and a candlelit altar to help the dead find their way home for the two days of the year (Nov. 1 and 2), when the living and the dead can commune.

Throughout the 1990s, I ran a little shop and sold imports from  Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. For a decade I was totally immersed in the Celtic culture. Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 are very important days in the Celtic calendar, for at midnight, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead thins, and we may actually be able to see one another.

All those Celtic peoples who came to the New World early on and settled on the frontiers and the back woods, from whom many, many of us descend, myself included, had a view of existence that is very different from the modern way of looking at things. We wonder how such realistic and practical people could have so readily believed in ghosts and haints and contact with the dead.  It had to be because they were ignorant and uneducated, we think, and obviously not as smart as we are.

But I say, au contraire, my friends.  As I travel through this life, I begin to have an intimation that things are not necessarily what they seem.  We perceive the world as we have been taught to do.  We see what we are looking for.

My great-grandmother, whom I was privileged to know when I was a girl, knew there were spirits abroad just as firmly as she knew the sky was blue. She had seen them, and she believed the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see them, or was she deluded? I’ve never seen a ghost. Am I realistic, or am I blind? How does a sighted person convince someone who has never seen that there is a color blue?

My protagonist, Alafair, perceives the universe in the same way my great-grandmother did, and I do not judge her for that.  In fact, maybe I’m a bit envious.

Samhain (pronounce that SHAW-win), Dear Readers, is a festival better known as Halloween, All Souls Day, and Celtic New Year. Some Celtic people would light bonfires on Samhain eve to guide the souls of loved ones, and make lanterns out of hollowed out turnips to lead the dead home for their annual visit.

My husband remembers that every Halloween, his father would dig a pit in back of the house, line it with bricks, fill it with wood, and light what they called a "bonfire", though it was more like a good sized campfire. The family would sit around it and roast wieners and marshmallows on sticks and stretched-out hangars. He has no idea where the family tradition came from, but I'm guessing it was passed down through the family from the misty past, for such traditions are remarkably enduring. So, if you live in the country or don't worry about being fined for building an open fire in your back yard, stretch out those hangars and get yourself a bag of marshmallows, and take a trip into the past with some campfire s’mores. Put a slab of Hershey bar on top of a Graham cracker, put a melty-hot roasted marshmallow on the chocolate, top with another Graham cracker, and enjoy.

And while you’re at it, be sure to light a candle to guide your loved ones home.


Sybil Johnson said...

Interesting post. Sorry to hear you got the flu. If Disney/Pixar can put out a Day of the Dead themed animated film late in November, you can post a DOTD post too!

I had no idea Samhein was pronounced that way. Thanks for that.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Fascinating! Although I know of the Day of the Dead and Halloween and Bealtaine, I didn't know about "Samhein" as such. So, after reading your post, I looked it up to find out more. So interesting. I see how you could become immersed in the Celtic culture. Thanks.