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Tag: Días de los Muertos

Which saints do we honor on All Saints Day? It depends on what cultural tradition we're talking about.

Which saints do we honor today?

Blessings on All Saints Day

The words "All Saints Day" and "Los Días de los Muertos" float above a fabric pattern of sugar sculls and circles of colorful dots.

This is one of those “universal” days celebrated in several cultural traditions. But exactly which saints are we venerating on this day? Who are they, and where did they come from? That depends on which tradition you mean. 

The ever-flexible early Christian Church adopted Celtic Samhain and reframed it in a culturally Christian way. Robust traditions in Poland and other Slavic countries point to pre-Christian roots as well. Missionary priests rediscovered it in their Mesoamerican and Filipino converts a few centuries later

Thus, neopagans todaytraditional Christians, and followers of Aztec, Maya, and other native/First Nations traditions of North America all find themselves in a similar place at this time of year, venerating (or at least remembering) some group of the dead. 

So, which saints are which? 

That’s a good question. The answer has changed over time. As early as the fourth century, Christians at Antioch gathered to honor those who had been martyred. In the seventh century, church leaders set the Day of the Dead on May 13thAt that point, “saint” apparently meant “martyr.”

The Martyrdom of St. Alban, from a 13th-Century manuscript now at Trinity College Dublin, was inscribed and illustrated by Matthew Paris.
The Martyrdom of St. Alban, from a 13th-Century manuscript now at Trinity College Dublin, was inscribed and illustrated by Matthew Paris

Later the definition of All Saints was broadened to all venerated saints. This included a great many “baptized” local gods and goddesses. Also , the observation moved to the fall season.

While not precisely the midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, it’s within a week of it. Since the earliest pre-Christian observances lasted over several days, it might be called a “season.” 

Converts from many traditions came under the umbrella of Christianity. The early break between the Eastern and Roman churches, and later the Reformation (Might note that Reformation Day is October 31) divided Christians into yet more subgroups and denominations. Each developed its own focus. 

Protestants, who don’t venerate capital-S Saints with the same understandings as Roman Catholic traditions, often speak “the saints” in terms of “the Church Triumphant.” By this they mean all Christians who have died

But no matter which saints you understand it to mean, I hope you have a blessed day.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to OneQuirkyMoose on Etsy, for the “Day of the Dead” fabric pattern that forms the background of my “All Saints Day” image. The photo of The Martyrdom of St. Alban by Matthew Paris, is courtesy of Wikipedia.

This title image is the word Samhain

Samhain: a thinning of the veil

I’ve had my Halloween post for this year up for a couple of days. Time now for a journey back into the roots of our traditions. The thinning of the veil between our world and the spirit realm is traditionally most extreme at Samhain.

The word "Samhain," pronounced something like "Sah-ween," stands out from a woven background with reddish-brown and black sun symbols.

It’s pronounced something like “Sahween,” according to my sources. It springs from ancient Celtic tradition.

Its popular, secular descendant is the contemporary craziness that is Halloween, but in its origins and in some of the rising spiritual communities of today it is celebrated more as a time of spiritual renewal.

A thinning of the veil

I see a common thread in the concept that the barriers of the spirit realm become less firm at certain pivotal times of the year

Two disparate cultural threads in my own experience come from the ancient Celtic traditions in the form of Samhain, and from Mesoamerica via the increasingly popular Días de los Muertos. (Yes, many people celebrate only one, but the Oaxacan tradition observes at least two). Whatever their other differences, they agree about a thinning of the veil.

You don’t have to worship your ancestors to feel a sense of connection with them. Even if they have long since passed on. We are, as Linda Hogan has so elegantly written, “The result of the love of thousands.” For many people Samhain can be a time of reconnection. Of rediscovering our families and the cultures and traditions from which we grew.

This is the Xoxo Cemetery in Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead celebrations sometime before 2009. Photo by Greg Willis.
This is the Xoxo Cemetery in Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead celebrations sometime before 2009. Photo by Greg Willis.

How do you reconnect with someone who died years ago? The Circle Sanctuary’s Selena Fox offers some representative suggestions.

Reconnecting

Graveyard Visits. Once again, the Oaxacans have elevated this to a fine art form. They clean, decorate, and then settle in by their ancestors’ graves. Sometimes for days. Meals are picnics. Music and “Ancestor Stories” abound. It’s a community party. What ancestral spirit wouldn’t want to come to that reunion?

Consider a family “Ancestors Altar,” “memory niche,” or display. This is kind of like the ofrendas created for Días de los Muertos. 

Have a Feast of the Dead, with a place setting held empty. It can either be on your table or on the altar/ofrenda. Leave a food and drink offering there. A Celtic tradition is a “Dumb Feast,” or “Dumb Supper” when no one talks. This recognizes the fact that our deceased ancestors can no longer speak directly with us.

My favorite approach (imagine that) is telling “Ancestor Stories” These are tales that have been passed down through the generations. There’s a whole contemporary movement of writing down, recording, or otherwise preserving ancestors’ stories.

This labyrinth is illuminated at dusk for an "Autumn Candlelight Labyrinth Walk" at the Copper Beech Institute in Connecticut during a retreat.
This labyrinth is illuminated at dusk for an “Autumn Candlelight Labyrinth Walk” at the Copper Beech Institute in Connecticut during a retreat.

Natural connections and reflection

Many neopagan communities find this a particularly apt moment to reconnect with nature, too. Mindfulness of our connections with the natural world are essential to our continued survival (in my humble opinion). You might want to try some of these approaches, even if you follow a different religious tradition.

Go on a nature walk, or walk a labyrinth in a beautiful natural setting. Contemplate the year, your place in the grand scheme, or other spiritual matters. Many spiritual traditions (including Christian) find a labyrinth a deeply spirit-feeding experience. There’s a labyrinth inside Chartres Cathedral, for instance.

Gather with your community around a bonfireIn earlier times a bonfire was seen as a hedge against evil spiritsCircle Sanctuary’s Selina Fox suggests a ceremony of shedding old habits or other unhealthy things in your life. She suggests writing them down on a piece of paper, then casting them into the flames.

Fox also suggests that other forms of reflection and spiritual renewal may come through reflections on the past (perhaps via journals, photographs, etc.). Renovate or refresh some part of your home, office, or life. Or seek other guidance

traditional Samhain bonfire may offer an opportunity for reflection, and also possibly parting ways with old habits or unhealthy attitudes or influences in your life.

However you celebrate Samhain (or don’t), and however you experience the thinning of the veil (or don’t), I wish you a deeper connection with the most important things in life.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Slingofest, for the gorgeous Luluna Slings “Salana Samhain” wrap (glitter) that formed the backdrop for the title image. I am grateful to Tripsavvy and Greg Willis, for the photo from the Xoxo Cemetery. It was originally posted on Flickr (but now it’s a 404 error on the link).  I also appreciate Druidry.org’s article on a deeper Samhain, for the photo of the Samhain bonfire.

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