A Spirited Halloween

Goblins and ghosts; zombies and vampires: as creatures of the night begin to stir, we know that Halloween is upon us. But how could we miss its advent? My grocery store is surely much like yours: the candy and decorative displays for Halloween have been near the store entrance for weeks!

Halloween, like all of our holidays, has become a largely commercialized event. Also much like other holidays, there’s something of significance about this holiday that taps the human spirit.

The historic roots of Halloween are complex. The influence of an ancient Roman harvest festival is evident in the pumpkins we carve. The variety of customs about the dead are drawn from the various Celtic tribes of Europe, particular those in the British Isles. Other elements emerged from Celtic Christianity, a fusion of the Christian story with earth-centered Celtic traditions. What was common in all of these historic roots for our modern Halloween was the association of the holiday (actually, this holy day) with a celebration of life’s fullness intertwined with the remembrance of the dead.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, an association was made in Western Europe with the Northern hemisphere’s shortening of days and the completion of the harvest with a particular understanding of a deep connection between the dead with those still alive.. This association wasn’t about some popular understanding of witch craft or evil menace, but a time to mark the bond with loved ones known as Hallowed Eve. Building on this understanding, Western Christianity began to mark holy days associated with the departed on the days following Halloween, with November 1 as All Saints and November 2 as All Souls in the 9th Century CE. (For historians, it may be worth noting that this was about 100 years after Ash Wednesday and the forty day Lenten fast was established. In other words, Christian religious observances were evolving at this time of European history.)

While the exact history of the evolution of Halloween is difficult to decipher, what is clear is that this holiday has marked the longing for on-going relationships with ancestors and deceased loved ones. This historic observance dates back several millennia and was not lost even when cultures evolved and the practice of religion changed from Celtic tribal traditions, to the Roman pantheon, and then to Christian monotheism.

Our scientific understanding of life and death often prevents us from appreciating the symbolism of the remembrance and veneration of ancestors found in many religions of the world. Whether it’s the veneration of ancestors in Taoism or Shinto or the Mexican celebration of Dia de Muertos, most Euro-Americans dismiss the beliefs and customs as quaint. In doing so, we’ve reduced them to being children’s playful activities or as nothing more than a reason to have an adult themed party. Yet, it’s precisely our scientific knowledge, particularly our understanding of genetics that enables us to understand that we carry within us the stuff that made our ancestors the people they were.

The traditions of Halloween grew from a sense that our deceased loved ones and ancestors were particularly close to us in the growing autumn season. Perhaps this connection with those who have died was made because the experience of autumn is both one of great beauty, with the harvest and the changing colors of leaves, as well as an experience of death, with longer nights and increasing cold.

At its best, Halloween is a reminder that our loved ones and ancestors continue to walk with us. Their lives continue to influence our lives. Who we are and what we do can, in many ways, be attributed to them.

This connection isn’t just some sort of happy reminiscence or nostalgia. Instead, the person I am today carries the genes of the members of an ancient Magyar tribe named “Kavar” who rode by horse along trade routes between Eastern Europe, India, and Persia. So, too, Louis Kavar, Sr., who emigrated from Hungary to the United States more than 100 years ago, continues to live in me. When I look in the mirror, I see his face looking back at me. I also see the faces of my father and mother and other ancestors I’ve known. I also recognize their resemblance in many others I meet who share similar genetic lines. The people we are today – each of us, and not just me – include something of the lives of those who have gone before us.

What’s even more amazing is that as researchers have traced back genetic lineage, connections have been found to relate us back to each other. For example, DNA research has shown that every person of European heritage (not including recent immigrants) share at least one common ancestor who lived about a thousand years ago. Similar research has found genetic connections among Asian people with the great leader Genghis Khan. As research continues to unfold, we grow in our understanding that we are all interconnected by genetics. This is part of the gift of those who have gone before us.

While I’ll enjoy passing out treats to the kids in our neighborhood this Halloween, what’s more important to me is to pause and reflect on the wonder of our lives. I carry within me the stuff of amazing people who faced challenges in life that I can’t even imagine. Beyond that, no matter how different you and I are from each other, at some point, we are somehow genetically related. This is just another way in which life continues to amaze me. Perhaps, more importantly, the ancients had some understanding of these connections. They marked them with a celebration that we still observe. It’s those connections between the living and the dead that make Halloween a truly holy day.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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