Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Day of the Dead #1: Beyond pumpkins, candy, costumes and spider webs

It’s October, the beginning of the holiday season in the US. The big triumvirate … Halloween … Thanksgiving … Christmas … begin this month. I was never very big on Halloween. The candy was nice, but, oh, the costumes!

My mother had repressed-creativity syndrome and Halloween activated it. While my childhood girlfriends would wind up in sweet little princess outfits, I never knew, or was asked, what my costume would be. One year I was a scarecrow, which sounds tame enough, except I was stuffed with real straw and you can only imagine what it’s like to walk around town stiff and scratchy. I must give her credit, though, we almost always won the best costume award. I think it scarred me though … I haven't been in a costume since I left home.
Mask found in Jocotopec

In the U.S., Halloween has become a six-billion dollar industry focused on pumpkins, costumes and candy and only loosely paying attention to the dead in the form of ghosts which have a strange affinity for spider webs. 

Now, I’m here in Mexico, where Día de los Muertos is on the calendar and on the minds of many. I’ve decided to delve more deeply into this, for me, unplowed field. Having reached my 70s, it’s much harder to pretend that death is not part of life.  
What are "ancestors?"

Last summer, I asked a shaman what he meant by “ancestors.” Were they just the direct gene pool that brought me here? As an only child who never knew my father or his line and had little exposure to my mother’s line, I don’t feel a connection to my direct ancestors. The shaman assured me that “ancestors” means more than just relatives who have passed. However, he did not give me a clear definition and left me thinking about the whole question. Now I find myself in a country deeply involved with ancestors and death. Interesting.

It turns out that almost every culture honors its dead. According to a Smithsonian article about world cultures, Halloween has its roots in "an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that the night before Samhain, spirits from the other world came and destroyed vegetation with their breath, leaving the land barren for winter. People would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease the spirits, and wear masks when they left the house to blend in with them."

It didn’t take long for the Christian church to co-op the festival and turn it into All Saints Day … All Hallows Eve … Halloween. One of the traditions included the poor begging for pastries in exchange for prayers for the deceased … the fore-runner of “trick or treat."

Some of the other world festivals honoring the ancestors include:

Obon Festival in Japan:  I was fortunate enough to see a miniature version of this Buddhist festival where families set floating paper lanterns honoring deceased ancestors onto a small lake in Fresno, California. In Kyoto, residents light giant bonfires in the hills in order to guide the spirits back to the world of the dead. 

Many of the customs of these world festivals are like a dance, enticing the spirits back to the world of the living and then helping them find their way back to their own world again. In Japan the dance to welcome them is called bon odori, intended to relieve the suffering of the spirits and 
and entice them to join the family reunion where graves are cleaned and altars created in their honor.

Cheseok in Korea is a 3-day festival which generally falls in September/October. It is a time for the living to give thanks to the dead for the bounty of their harvest. In addition to cleaning and decorating graves, they share food and their bounty with each other and celebrate under a full moon with dances and games.

Thinning of the Veil

It is interested how many world festivals cluster in the months following the harvesting of food and before the actual onslaught of winter. Many descriptions of this time include the thought that this is the time when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest. Isn’t it interesting that this is such a world-wide belief?

Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival is the culmination of a month-long period of honoring the ancestors and begins in July or August. This is a time "when the gates to the netherworld are said to be most open to the world of the living. Often, people avoid going out at night for fear that ghosts who have passed through the gates will haunt them."

The Hungry Ghost Festival balances fear with frivolity including parades, feasts and more floating lanterns. In China, however, there is a belief that the further a lantern floats before catching fire, the luckier the family will be in the coming year. They also make paper offerings of cars, money, jewelry and burn them in order to provide for ancestors in the afterlife.

The Chinese also have a festival known as Qingming, also called Ancestors Day or Tomb-Sweeping Day occurring in mid-April when they clean the graves and make offerings to the ancestors.

Gai Jatra in Nepal is an eight-day festival that happens in September or October. Families who have lost a relative during the year lead a cow … or a child dressed as a cow if they don’t have a cow … down the street in a procession. The belief is that the revered cow will guide the ancestors into the afterlife.

Cambodia’s Pchum Ben is one of the most important holidays of the year. It involves fifteen days of gathering at pagodas (wearing white, the Cambodian color of mourning) to remember ancestors. They believe that during Pchum Ben, spirits come back in search of living relatives, hoping to atone for sins from their past life. 

Madagascar has a winter celebration called famadihana, when tombs are opened and the corpses are removed, to be wrapped in silk and carried around the tomb to live music. Their belief is that spirits cannot fully go to the land of the ancestors until the body is completely decomposed. Therefore, every seven years the body is removed, re-wrapped, and put back into the tomb.

I find these celebrations of the ancestors fascinating in their similarities and in their differences. As far as I know, we are the only animal species that has developed these elaborate death rituals. We are obviously concerned with death and with the well-being of the loved ones who have made a transition to a state we can no longer see or understand.

For the next month, I am going to explore the nuances of the celebrations here in Mexico … and, my own questions, thoughts and feelings about the grand transition that looms before me. If you have questions you would like to be explored during this series, please leave them in the comments section below.

In order to identify these posts, the subject lines will all begin with DDLM for Día de los Muertos.


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1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to some more traditions regarding death celebrations. Very intriguing the different rituals.