Perhaps it’s the crisp leaves blanketing the ground in shades of gold and red or maybe it’s the lengthening hours of darkness, but the season of autumn has inspired cultures around the world to create traditions that in some way honor the dead. For example, in the tenth lunar month—usually September—Cambodian Buddhists celebrate P’chum Ben, a 14-day Festival of the Dead during which sweet sticky rice and other treats are left at the local temple for spirits to enjoy. In Japan the Festival of the Lanterns or Obon is seen as a day when the spirits of ancestors return to visit their living family members. Colorful paper lanterns are lit in public places and outside of homes as a way to guide the spirits back.
Fall festivals we may be more familiar with here in the U.S. include Halloween, Day of the Dead and Samhain.
October 31, Halloween
The first American celebrants of Halloween would hardly recognize today’s version of the holiday. In the early 1800s, Irish immigrants brought with them to America the tradition of carving pumpkins and dressing in disguise on the “hallowed eve” of Samhain. When Halloween celebrations first gained popularity in the 1840’s “trick-or-treat” time was heavy on the tricks. Making mischief in the form of minor vandalism was the main form of entertainment for children on Halloween, not collecting candy. Unfortunately, over the years those harmless pranks turned into more and more troublesome mischief. Organized parties and door-to-door candy collection were intended to replace the more dangerous activities that were becoming all too common.
The popularity of Halloween has waxed and waned since it was first introduced. Fears about poisoned candy, dangerous strangers, the general safety of letting children wander the streets at night and religious objections have dampened enthusiasm for traditional trick-or-treating. But according to Hallmark today Halloween is the third largest party day behind Super Bowl Sunday and New Year’s Eve, and in 2012 the National Confectioners Association reported that 96 percent of Americans were planning on buying candy for Halloween. Halloween traditions may be changing, but the holiday itself remains firmly planted in the hearts of American children and adults.
November 1, Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos
Like many of the holidays we celebrate today, the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos combines ancient traditions with modern religious ideas. In this case, indigenous Aztec rituals blend with Catholicism to create a lively Latin American celebration that honors the dead with all the activities they enjoyed in life, including dance, drink, food and colorful parties. According to National Geographic Education, the most common symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the skull or calaveras. Skeletons and skulls made from all types of materials, including sugar and bread, are used as decorations and as edible treats. Flaunting and even consuming these items is a symbolic way of showing there’s no fear of death. It is simply a natural part of the human experience.
Day of the Dead celebrations can be found from Santa Barbara to San Miguel. Participating in public events is a wonderful way to learn more about the culture, food and history of Mexico and Mexican Americans.
November 1, Samhain
Pronounced sow-en, Samhain is often credited as being the precursor to Halloween. In her book Halloween, noted Pagan author Silver Ravenwolf states that approximately 6000 years ago the Paleopagan culture we now refer to as the Celts divided the year into two halves, the light half and the dark half. Samhain marked the beginning of the dark part of the year, when the chores of harvest season were complete, and people settled in for long cold winters filled with long dark nights. Who wouldn’t want one big party before hunkering down to the bitter isolation of winter before the days of snowplows and Internet? Over hundreds and thousands of years the collective mythos of the culture assigned certain rituals to the holy day of Samhain, including leaving food out for the wandering souls of the dead and keeping candles glowing inside hollowed gourds to ward evil spirits away.
Most modern Pagans view Samhain as a time to honor their ancestors and mentally prepare for a winter of spiritual introspection. Finding Samhain celebrations to participate in can be difficult if you’re not Pagan—or even if you are. Most are private events hosted by small groups who meet regularly throughout the year to celebrate other sacred days on the Pagan calendar.
If the fading energy of fall puts you in a melancholy mood it may be some ancient desire to honor the deceased or make peace with the past is tugging at your heartstrings. Participating in a Halloween party, a Dia de los Muertos event or making a photo shrine of your ancestors on Samhain may help get you into the spirit of autumn or at least add to the enjoyment of the season.