Autumn Holidays are upon us – and ritual will abound

We are coming to the really big season of holidays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. I want to talk about the autumn holidays today and I’ll get to the winter holidays another time.

Starting with Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve. The name itself comes from the All Saints Day celebration of the early Christian church, a day set aside for the solemn remembrance of martyrs. All Hallows Eve takes place on the evening before All Saints Day, beginning this time of remembrance. 

But Halloween’s origins go back even further – to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celtic people, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1st. They were not Christians (yet). This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and on this day the dead (ghosts) returned to earth. 

Obviously we have strayed quite far from those origins but trick-or-treating and wearing costumes goes back pretty far as well. By medieval times people masked and paraded in the streets and entered houses to dance or play dice on this date.

Halloween didn’t become an American holiday until the immigrants from the British Isles brought it here in the late nineteenth century.  The Halloween we know, while so different from its origins, still connects on many levels. After all, a ghost costume today is always good!  For young people the whole fright aspect that is so voraciously promoted can be about facing fears, a part of growing up… along with some good neighborly fun.

Graves are decorated for Day of the Dead

Another tradition, perhaps less well-known to some of us, is the Day (or Days) of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, celebrated throughout Mexico, and by people of Mexican ancestry especially in the American Southwest. The Day of the Dead focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember loved ones who have died and help support their spiritual journey. The intriguing part for most of us not within that community is the celebrations that take place right on the graves of the departed. The iconic imagery that goes along with the celebration, which takes place from October 31 to November 2, is greatly loved and imitated.  While it might seem like Halloween in some ways – it is not. 

Traditional Day of the Dead rituals include creating altars to honor the dead, laying out food offerings, sharing anecdotes and stories (many are humorous that poke fun of the deceased) as well as cleaning and, most interesting, decorating and sharing a meal at gravesites. The key purpose of these activities is to make contact with the spirits of the dead, to let them know they are not forgotten. 

Fall theme for Day of the Dead graves

Then comes Thanksgiving, which is celebrated to honor the Pilgrims’ first feast. They were, I presume, giving thanks for simply surviving. The story is that the feast was held with the Indigenous people who were, perhaps naively, hospitable to the newly arrived Europeans. 

Like the Day of the Dead, sharing a Thanksgiving meal is a tradition that makes us feel a part of the generations that preceded us. Putting aside the historic misconceptions that have been promoted for many reasons – the re-writing of history and commercialism – the holiday still has much to offer. Thanksgiving is now a time for expressing gratitude about health, family and personal circumstances, and research tells us that when we engage in talking about our gratitude, it brings us a deeper sense of well-being. 

The Chef brings the food to the table!
Rhinehart Photography

All of these celebrations have all the important ingredients of ritual – a prescribed time and place; predictable elements that are repeated year after year, and meaning is conveyed through symbols and intergenerational gatherings like the ones we remember from our childhood. 

If we do our part, over our lifetime, we pass these shared rituals along to the next generation.  Day of the Dead and Thanksgiving intentionally remember those who have died by celebrating their lives and telling stories of how they contributed to our shared values, traditions and family lore. And both provide an opportunity to feel connected to something bigger that extends beyond the ritual, by connecting us with a deeper sense of gratitude for life. Halloween doesn’t hold that depth of meaning, but it still connects us in other ways.

Whatever holiday rituals you might practice in the coming months, I hope you enjoy them, remembering our past, and that our time on this planet is short, so we should make the most of it.



find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman
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