I threw a little gathering at my place last Friday. All of my guests were dead. I made my Dad a peanut butter and honey sandwich. I made tea for my Gran, my Aunts Bett & Alice, and for my Uncle Jack. My old comrade Jan got a glass of port. Everyone got wheatmeal digestive biscuits, apples, and chocolate, and by Gran's request, soft boiled eggs. Of course, not wanting to be species-ist, my partner broke out some fine catnip for my old furry friend Newton. These loved ones, now dead, are invited and welcomed back into my home and life, along with a growing list of friends: Judi, Jasper, Jim, Bruce, to be honored, loved,and to renew our connections. That's what Samhain, Celtic New Year, or Halloween, is all about. A time to eat, drink, and connect again with our beloved dead. A time to renew our connection in the long chain of life, knowing that, in our turn, we too will pass, and new generations carry on the mantel of life on this plane.
On Saturday, I went to a concert wherein the dead were formally invited to come and dance. Jason Webley and Vagabond Opera combined their musical genius and put on a fabulous show. But that was only a part of the evening. At the side of the dance floor was a beautiful altar for the dead, with candles, food, flowers, pictures, skulls-a-plenty, and much love. Folks were encouraged to go to the altar and converse, play with, write notes to, or in some way interact with the dead / death / transformation. A large paper mache skull was on hand to receive notes of affirmation and the like; collecting the notes for a ritual following the concert.
As the music stopped, a procession started--- following Webley, who held aloft a very large paper mache tomato, a couple of hundred people created a joyous parade down the street and around the block about midnight. Celebrants shook rattles made of plastic bottles and coins, blessing and strengthening our connections, with ourselves, each other, and the dead. We ended up back at the venue, with a little fire made ready in a steel cart, decorated with skeletons and skulls; gathering 'round while the large skull with our collected notes inside was put on the flames. Smoke began to pour out of the hole cut in for the third eye. As the energy built, the flames engulfed the skull and the sky opened, and for a moment, there was an absolute downpour. When I have shared this story with a couple of friends well familiar with the ways of ritual, they told me that in their traditions that downpour is a sign of prayers being accepted by the spirits-- it certainly felt that way to me at the time. Three young women danced around the flames as we stood adding our energies to the affirmations going up in smoke. Shortly thereafter, a large fire truck and two cop cars stopped by, and a very nervous house manager ran about telling everyone "It was a great evening but everyone has to leave NOW!" It's hard to be a pagan in the city.
But of course, this isn't really a pagan thing. It's just stopping to note that at this time in our yearly cycle the veil between the worlds grows thinnest. Many cultures recognize this. You don't have to be a believer, just walk out amongst the fall leaves, feel the air on your face, and listen to the night-- and feel. There are other realities pressing against each other like soap bubbles-- and now the walls of that bubble are quite thin.
So much of American mainstream culture is really twisted up when it comes to death. It is, forgive the pun, morbidly afraid of it, and dictates that polite company avoids the subject at all costs. Part of this terror comes from the fear of separation-- of loss. It becomes a catch-22, since we are taught fear it, we want no reminders of it, and we abandon our dead, which reinforces that separation. This is so very different from the cultures that accept that death and life are inherently intertwined. Now we are on this side, and sometime we will be on the other, never really knowing when that transition will take us through. I have spent some time recently contemplating this, following the sudden death of a man that was becoming a friend. Paradoxically, I find that I appreciate life all the more when I work on accepting death.
And the wheel of the year turns--- in the Celtic traditions, the God is dead, and awaits rebirth on Winter's Solstice. It is the dark of the year, a time to go deep inside and vision what we need to do for ourselves and the world in the times ahead. This is the time of creating that seed / those visions. Oh, and a time to remember the dead, and to feast together, remember our families, ancestors, friends, and celebrate the connections that weave together this world.