As the year dies, the gift of life

A new month but a strange one in a way, definitely out of autumn but not really into the depths of winter.

It’s a liminal time, neither one thing nor the other.

In the northern hemisphere, we notice signs of death around us. Leaves change colour and fall, plants wither in the first frosts, the last orchard fruits disappear.

Perhaps not surprising then that November 1st is traditionally considered a day when the barriers between the living and the dead are thin and shifting and when doorways between the physical and non-physical worlds can open. Many cultures around the world believe that the souls of those we love can return at this time.

Perhaps the most famous is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, a colourful and joyous festival which families use as an opportunity to come together to remember and celebrate the dead.

During the festival, children are given sweets shaped like human skulls – perhaps in the hope that it’s difficult to be afraid of death when its representation is associated with the blissful taste of melting sugar! They also see adults putting out special toys for departed souls to play with and little clay figures showing the dead in physical activities. It’s deliberately not scary.

In some ways, our Hallowe’en is becoming similar – the sweets and frivolity of Trick and Treat replacing what was once a solemn Christian festival. Hallowe’en was the evening before All Hallows’ Day on November 1st, the day of remembrance for all the saints. After the Reformation in the 16th century, this gradually changed to commemorating all those who had died, not just saints, but the day was still recognised by church-going and prayers rather than exuberant celebration.

Undas in the Philippines is another remembrance festival that brings the family together, often to visit the graves of loved ones with, again, food and flowers. At home, they light a candle for each loved one to be remembered. Children are encouraged to roll melted wax from the candles into a ball, a symbol that everything goes back to where it began.

The Samhain festival is a Celtic one from the pre-Roman era. Although no written details exist from the time, Old Irish literature from the 10th century says it was, among other things, a time to honour the dead. A place was set at the table for the souls of dead relatives who might return for the day and, you’ve guessed it, food and drink laid out to welcome or appease them. Again, traditionally, it’s observed on November 1st.

All of these festivals, and there are many others around the world, remind us that we can find happy ways to remember those we’ve lost. It doesn’t have to be a big celebration or one that involves other people. In a secular world, we may no longer believe that the souls of the departed visit once a year but we can still enjoy their favourite meal, listen to a much-loved piece of music, visit a meaningful place. These acts of remembrance are bitter-sweet – a reminder of what we’ve lost but also an assurance that those memories can never be taken away.

When we remember, we give our loved ones a different life, whatever the time of year

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