Honouring the Ancestors

So it’s been super-incredibly busy for the last few weeks – to the point that my October blog is only just happening now, in November. Of course, there are a couple of obvious reasons for that. One, naturally, was Halloween.

It still amazes me how many people in Australia go on about Halloween being an ‘American custom’, and asking why on earth we should celebrate it. They argue that we should reject the holiday on this mistaken premise – although modern society seems to accept many other American ideas and ways of doing things (for better or worse, I’d rather not say here). So why not this one?

I’m sure the better informed of you know that Halloween is much, much older than that. There have been festivals of the dead and honouring of ancestors for millennia in many different civilisations. The basis for the festival that became our modern Halloween lies in ancient Celtic origins, and was practised throughout most of Europe until being taken with immigrants to the Americas.

It wasn’t even a very popular festival there for a long time, and was almost stamped out by the authorities as a reaction against people using it as an opportunity to act irresponsibly or violently. But in the last century it was turned around and became – due to a ‘sanitation’ process worthy of Disney – accepted and liked, until it became the plastic-and-paint enhanced spectacle of cheap thrills and money grabbing that it is today.

That probably sounds rather harsh and derogatory – even more so than those people I spoke about earlier who rejected Halloween on the mistaken basis that it was ‘American’.

Naturally, for Halloween to retain its popularity with the general public, it had to go through some changes. One could argue that all the major festivals (the major *Christian* festivals at any rate) have gone through such a process that they little resemble what they were originally there to represent or celebrate.

But with a small amount of research, you may find that even those are not all they seem. Christmas and Easter are the prime examples, where the original meanings of the celebrations are little thought of amongst many people today. Beyond a general vague idea that they are something to do with Jesus, a great deal of the populace seems to gravitate more to the ‘eating, drinking, and being merry’ – and spending a fortune on decorations and presents, than to the religious meanings of such days.

But do your research and go back far enough in history, and you’ll find that even these meaningful holidays were tacked onto existing pagan festivals to enable easier conversion to the Christian faith.

This was followed by many centuries of indoctrination that the bible was infallible, leading to literal translations and belief in the stories and events portrayed within. Until now, with most of Western society sincerely believing that Jesus was actually born on December 25th, when biblical historians are reasonably certain it was a different time of year altogether.

I’m not ‘down’ on the Christian bible – I regard it as a valuable historical document and a treasure trove of ancient stories, wisdom, and sound rules for living by. But I also see it as a document that may have been tampered with and changed, especially in the early days of Christianity, when the doctrines of the new faith were still being formed, and it also became the political plaything of the late Roman Empire.

Maybe this isn’t the time or place for a history lesson. I know there are people out there who will disagree with my assessment of history. But my thirst for knowledge has lead me to read and research widely and deeply about history and religion, not so I can attack people’s beliefs, but so I can be better informed myself.

And in turn, this knowledge helps to forge the ideas that I write about, and become stories for me to tell.

As for Halloween, yes, I know it’s a cheap thrill at the expense of what was once an important tradition that is now largely lost. How many people nowadays express the reverence and respect for their ancestors that was once common?

Maybe the more modern craze for genealogical research satiates that part of us to a certain degree. We examine our lineages so carefully, until we can say with a good deal of certainty where our grandparents and those before them lived, what jobs they held, where they moved to, where they were baptised, schooled, married, buried, what they looked like (if there were photos or paintings) and other relevant historical information about them.

We might even glean a few things about their personalities, their likes, their hates, their beliefs, their good deeds and their bad. We may laugh or cry at what we find out about them, and feel that they were real people that we might have liked or loved, or hated, judged and condemned.

But is there a meaningful spiritual element in all of this searching and browsing through old photos and documents? Does it validate our existence to know that great uncle George fought in World War I and nearly died from mustard-gas poisoning, but recovered and went on to spawn a huge and healthy family? Or that great-great grandmother Mary was caught stealing a bolt of cotton and sent to the colonies as punishment, where she eventually married and then died in childbirth?

I think maybe it does. I personally see a great value in knowing and passing these stories down through generations. It would be such a shame that so many people who have lived and died in the past have their stories lost, as though they were of too little value to remember. And our ancestor’s stories do help define us, by showing where certain family traits come from, and giving us roots as part of the human family.

It is a different form of honouring and remembering them, and we can choose to make it more deep and meaningful, as our ancestors did, by observing days of remembrance and festivals such as Halloween, All Souls Day and Day of the Dead. There has been a living, breathing, thinking, and doing surge of humanity before we came onto the earth, and it will (hopefully) still remain long after we’re gone.

This, I think, is one reason why humans are story-telling creatures. We seem to do so now more for entertainment than anything else, but in ancient times, we spoke tales of our ancestors and their deeds, to respect them, to honour our families, and to cement our place in an often confusing and arbitrary world.

Along with that, the idea developed that there were certain times of the year that were more propitious to communicate with those who had passed over, and therefore access their knowledge and wisdom, or to have them act as intermediaries between the living and the spiritual realm or deity, or find comfort from feeling contact with a lost loved one.

Two thousand years of Abrahamic religions have tried to teach us not to seek contact with those who have passed. And yet we still reach out, and embrace them through festivals such as Halloween. Perhaps it is a fundamental human need to seek this contact, this connection.

Perhaps this is the true spirit of the festival, rather than spooky costumes and decorations, and trick-or-treating, or horror movies late at night. Either way, I don’t think we’re about to give it up.

Keep a smile on your dial until next time, and peace and love in your heart

From Lana Lea and her time-travelling muse

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