Day of the Dead
When we consider the month of October and Halloween, our modern take on the Holiday is largely fun and commercially driven, celebrated with spooky costumes and all our favorite Halloween treats. However, this time of year wasn’t always celebrated with ‘trick-or-treating’. Instead, many cultures focus on the celebrations honoring those that came before us.
As we head into the Halloween season, the veil that exists between our world and that of the spiritual will has started to thin out. On Halloween night, also known as All Hallows Eve, it is said that this veil drops, allowing those in the spiritual world to move freely among us. Now, this may sound concerning, to say the least, but don’t get too worried yet. Much like us here on in this life, the spiritual world is filled with both good and not so good spirits. While there are sure to be some mischievous beings trying to bring mischief and chaos into our lives, it is believed that we will also be visited by our deceased loved ones.
The concept of the dead moving among us is the underlying concept behind the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos. Often known as a holiday celebrated in Mexico, records show that these traditions can be dated back as far as the Aztecs. Spanning two days, the holiday specifically focuses on honoring our deceased loved ones, through the use of parties, parades, feasts and other celebrations. Many who celebrate also done colorful costumes and skull makeup, also known as sugar skulls, a symbol that has come to be highly recognizable in today’s pop culture.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are also similar to Day of the Dead. These are celebrations embraced by Western Christianity, in which the souls of faithful Christians who have paced are honored with the placing of flowers or candles at their grave sites, and church services discussing their memory. During this time, Christians also pay tribute to the martyrs and saints.
Also known as ‘Summers End’, Samhain is the Pagan holiday celebrated at this time. While this holiday is largely associated with the celebrations of the ancient Celts, many Pagans, Wiccans and Druids will celebrate Samhain around the globe. The holiday marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter, however, it also includes a number of celebrations including bonfires and feasts, honoring those that came before them.
Are You Looking For Ways To Honor Your Deceased Loved Ones During This Time? Here Are A Few Ideas:
- Cook a specific meal in honor of your deceased loved one. This is a regular part of the celebrations of Day of the Dead. Those who celebrate would cook the favorite meal of their loved one to ‘share’ in celebration of their time together.
- Use meditation to allow you to open your mind and your heart to communication from your loved ones. Remember, they are moving among you and may very well be trying to let you know that they are there.
- If you do still visit the grave site of a loved one, take some time out this night to be there. Place a lit candle, a flower of your choice or some other memento to show you were there. If you feel their presence, speak aloud to them. Remember, they are moving among us.
- Light a black candle, paying tribute to the stages of life and the inevitable darkness that comes with its final stage, death. Candles are also often used as a tribute or memorial to those who have come before us. If you wish, you can carve the name of your loved one into a taper candle and burn it in honor of a specific loved one.
- Gather friends and family together and light a large bonfire. Share your favorite stories of your friends and loved ones as you feel them moving among you. You can also include their favorite food and drinks in the evening’s celebrations.
- Choose to celebrate life by giving thanks for the life you were given, and that of the family members that came before you. Make a list of all the reasons you have to be appreciative at this time.
- Set up an altar to honor the specific loved ones that hold a special place in your heart. This may include photos or objects that hold a special meaning of some form.
- Take part in an activity that meant something to a friend or loved one that you are choosing to honor. For example, if you recently lost your brother and he was highly into superhero movies, you could enjoy a movie marathon night either on your own or with other loved ones who knew him.
Source: Awareness Act
The Feralia was the closing festival of the ancient Roman festival of Parentalia. During the Feralia, families would picnic at the tombs of their deceased family members and give libations to the dearly departed. It was believed that the shades of the dead could walk upon the earth above their graves during Feralia.
Roman citizens were instructed to bring offerings to the tombs of their dead ancestors which consisted of at least “an arrangement of wreaths, a sprinkling of grain and a bit of salt, bread soaked in wine and violets scattered about.” Additional offerings were permitted, however the dead were appeased with just the aforementioned.
Ovid tells of a time when Romans, in the midst of war, neglected Feralia, which prompted the spirits of the departed to rise from their graves in anger, howling and roaming the streets. After this event, tribute to the tombs were then made and the ghastly hauntings ceased.
“And the grave must be honoured. Appease your fathers’ Spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built. Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths. A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough, A scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt, and bread soaked in wine, and loose violets: Set them on a brick left in the middle of the path…
…and hide the gods, closing those revealing temple doors, Let the altars be free of incense, the hearths without fire. Now ghostly spirits and the entombed dead wander, Now the shadow feeds on the nourishment that’s offered. But it only lasts till there are no more days in the month Than the feet that my metres possess. This day they call the Feralia because they bear [ferunt] Offerings to the dead: the last day to propitiate the shades.” – Ovid
To indicate public mourning, marriages of any kind were prohibited on the Feralia, and Ovid urged mothers, brides, and widows to refrain from lighting their wedding torches. Magistrates stopped wearing their insignia and any worship of the gods was prohibited as it “should be hidden behind closed temple doors; no incense on the altar, no fire on the hearth.”
“It’s like New Year’s Day for the dead.” That’s how Sherly Turenne sums up the celebration for Ghede spirits, led by Baron Samedi, god of death in Haiti’s Vodun tradition.
He is anticipated with happiness as the protector of children, provider of wise advice and the last best hope for the seriously ill. Celebrated on Nov. 2, along with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, Ghede (GEH-day) is also a day to remember and honor ancestors.
All boons granted by the Ghede must be repaid by this date or they will take their vengeance on you.
About the Ghede:
With a population of 8.5 million, Haiti is 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent Vodun (VOH-doon), a religion that accommodated the practices and principles of captives from Dahomey, Yorubaland, Congo and Angola who were brought to the island during the African slave trade.
The Dahomey/Yoruba term can refer both to the verb gede, to cut through, and igede, incantation, hinting at cutting through to mystery, in this case the mystery of death. Because the Africans combined the elements of their various geographical regions, there came to be in Haiti many Ghedes, several Barons and a creole term referring to a formal god, all referring to the dead and death itself.
Ghedes are part of the pantheon of gods known as Loa (Loh-WAH). Ghede then, as the ruler of death and embodying also the principle of resurrection, governs the preservation and renewal of life. He is sometimes also referred to with affection as Papa Ghede.
People will put on their Sunday best, and go to church first thing in the morning to pray.
Then they will go home and put on the regalia of the ragtag Ghedes, as the spirits of the underworld are often called, or the elegant Baron Samedi (SAHM-dee) in his black, white and purple color scheme. An outfit can be as simple as a white blouse and skirt and purple neck scarf or can include a black top hat and tails, a baton or cane, a red bandanna or multicolored necklaces.
It is also common to wear makeup – painting half the face white with black around the eyes or even just dusting the face with flour. Once dressed, celebrants go to the town cemetery, where those who have ancestors there will clean the tombs of their loved ones and leave food for them in remembrance.
The spiritual adepts, the women called mambos and the men called houngans (HONE-gahn), joined by drummers and singers, will pray at a cross rising from a tomb, the symbol of Baron Samedi, summoning the spirits. And then the partying begins.
The seeming contradiction may be difficult for Americans to comprehend. The god of death, Baron Samedi nevertheless pokes fun at death and with his raunchy humor and suggestive, lewd dancing makes fun of the human passion that brings life.
A typical altar in honor of Ghede would include cigarettes; clarin, a Haitian white rum spiced with habanero peppers; a small white image of a skull; white, black and purple candles; satin fabric in the same colors; crosses; a miniature coffin; sequined bottles and a chromolithograph of St. Gerard, a saint associated with Baron Samedi. No altar would be complete without the requisite top hat and cane.
Preparing a feast
Oakland dance instructor Portsha Jefferson, whose great-grandmother was Haitian, has been celebrating the holiday for years, both at home and as part of a public gathering. She will prepare a veritable feast for her ancestors, including greens, yams, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, red beans and rice, cabbage, baked chicken and fried snapper, with sweet potato pie for their dessert.
She will begin her day by pouring a libation and offering a prayer in thanks and ask for their blessing. Her altar for Ghede will be refreshed with clarin and set with a vase of fresh flowers and a new white candle. Then she’ll pack up her scandalous Ghede outfit, a black gown with silver and purple sequins that is slit on each side to midthigh, borrow the Baron’s top hat and go to the community celebration, which she has been planning with partner Lee Hetelson.
It was started by the Petit la Croix dance company’s Blanche Brown, who taught Haitian dance in the Bay Area for decades; Jefferson, who took it over in 2003, sends out an e-mail to adepts and dancers asking for volunteers.
“I have people set up on the day-of – decorations, constructing the altar, food preparation, hiring musicians, graphic designers for flyers, administrators for marketing,” she said.
Many community celebrations feature special performances, costume contests, dancing and dance workshops, along with the opportunity to have fun. A Ghede feast is a chance for drummers to play and dancers to dance. It has become really popular, with people wearing Ghede’s clothes.
The party also seems to have a spiritual impact on participants. “I’ve been surprised to hear that people – after dancing- it would lighten up their spirit or help them get through whatever problem they were having at the time.”
In Haiti, preparations had been go on for weeks. At traditional worship sites, called hounfours (HOWN-for), devotees prepare the altar with drapo (flags or cloth) in black, white and purple, lay out Ghede’s attire, and soak habanero peppers in vinegar or water to later be added to clarin for the drink few but the Ghedes can bear to swallow.
The food placed around the altar is very important. It is also important that all the things for other gods are put away. This is to make sure that all of The Baron’s needs are there for when he comes.
Spiritual revellers wear white face paint and drink spicy rum during the two day festival. Devotees can be seen eating glass, carrying dead goats, and drinking from bottles of rum infused with fiery peppers at the spiritual bash.
The Haitians head to a sprawling cemetery in the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince, where voodoo priests and priestesses gather around what is thought to be the nation’s oldest grave.
A man dressed as a “Gede”, or spirit of voodoo, greets people as they enter the cemetery
They then light candles and start small fires to recall the spirit of Baron Samedi the guardian of the dead.
The Day of the Dead festival takes place on November 1 and November 2, when voodoo followers remember relatives who have passed away and asks spirits to grant them favours or offer them advice.
Vendors set up in the cemetery and sell things such as rum, candles and rosary beads.
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 egg white
- 1 TBSP. corn syrup
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- colored icing
- 1 fine paintbrush
Sift powdered sugar. Mix the egg white, corn syrup, and vanilla in a very clean bowl, then add the powdered sugar with a wooden spoon. When almost incorporated, start kneading with the tip of your fingers until you can form a small ball. Dust with cornstarch on board. Keep on kneading until smooth, then form into skull shapes. Let dry completely, then paint with colored icing, including the names of the people you are giving them to.
In Italy, the sine qua non of All Souls’ celebrations is a cookie called “Ossi di Morto,” or “Bones of the Dead.”
Here’s a recipe:
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 10 oz almonds
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 oz pine nuts
- 1 TBSP butter
- A shot glass full of brandy or grappa
- The grated zest of half a lemon
- One egg and one egg white, lightly beaten
Blanch the almonds, peel them, and chop them finely (you can do this in a blender, but be careful not to over-chop and liquefy).
Combine all the ingredients except the egg in a bowl, mixing them with a spoon until you have a firm dough. Dust your hands and work surface with flour, and roll the dough out between your palms to make a “snake” about a half inch thick. Cut it into two-inch long pieces on the diagonal. Put on greased and floured cookie sheet, brush with the beaten egg, and bake them in a 330-350 oven for about 20 minutes. Serve them cold. Because they are a dry, hard cookie, it is good to serve these with something to drink.
As usual with big Catholic Feast days, food is involved with the day, with many Catholic families having picnics near their loved ones’ graves. Traditional foods include “Soul Food” — food made of lentils or peas.
Basic Split Pea Soup (serves 4)
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 cloves garlic (optional)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil or bacon grease
- 1 pound dried split peas
- 1 pound ham bone
- 1 c. chopped ham
- 1 c. chopped carrots (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
In a medium pot, sauté onions in oil or bacon grease. (Optional: add garlic and sauté until just golden, then remove). Remove from heat and add split peas, ham bone and ham. Add enough water to cover ingredients, and season with salt and pepper.
Cover, and cook until there are no peas left, just a green liquid, 2 hours. (Optional: add carrots halfway through) While it is cooking, check to see if water has evaporated. You may need to add more water as the soup continues to cook.
Once the soup is a green liquid remove from heat, and let stand so it will thicken. Once thickened you may need to heat through to serve. Serve with either sherry or sour cream on top, and with a crusty bread.
There is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight, and the third when our loved ones forget us.
Some believe that the origins of All Souls’ Day in European folklore and folk belief are related to customs of ancestor veneration practiced worldwide. It is practically universal folk belief that the souls of the dead (or those in Purgatory) are allowed to return to earth on All Souls Day. In Austria, they are said to wander the forests, praying for release. In Poland, they are said to visit their parish churches at midnight, where a light can be seen because of their presence. Afterward, they visit their families, and to make them welcome, a door or window is left open. In many places, a place is set for the dead at supper, or food is otherwise left out for them.
In any case, our beloved dead should be remembered, commemorated, and prayed for.
During our visits to their graves, we spruce up their resting sites, sprinkling them with holy water, leaving votive candles, and adorning them flowers (especially chrysanthemums and marigolds) to symbolize the Eden-like paradise that man was created to enjoy, and may, if saved, enjoy after death and any needed purgation.
Today is a good day to not only remember the dead spiritually, but to tell your children about their ancestors. Bring out those old photo albums and family trees! Write down your family’s stories for your children and grandchildren! Impress upon them the importance of their ancestors!
Around the world:
The formal commemoration of the saints and martyrs (All Saints’ Day) existed in the early Christian church since its legalization, and alongside that developed a day for commemoration of all the dead (All Souls’ Day). The modern date of All Souls’ Day was first popularized in the early eleventh century after Abbot Odilo established it as a day for the monks of Cluny and associated monasteries to pray for the souls in purgatory.
Many of these European traditions reflect the dogma of purgatory. For example, ringing bells for the dead was believed to comfort them in their cleansing there, while the sharing of soul cakes with the poor helped to buy the dead a bit of respite from the suffering of purgatory. In the same way, lighting candles was meant to kindle a light for the dead souls languishing in the darkness. Out of this grew the traditions of “going souling” and the baking of special types of bread or cakes.
In Tirol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.
In Bolivia, many people believe that the dead eat the food that is left out for them. In Brazil people attend a Mass or visit the cemetery taking flowers to decorate their relatives’ grave, but no food is involved.
In Malta many people make pilgrimages to graveyards, not just to visit the graves of their dead relatives, but to experience the special day in all its significance. Visits are not restricted to this day alone. During the month of November, Malta’s cemeteries are frequented by families of the departed. Mass is also said throughout the month, with certain Catholic parishes organizing special events at cemetery chapels.
In Linz, funereal musical pieces known as aequales were played from tower tops on All Soul’s Day and the evening before.
In Mexico “Dia de Los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) is celebrated very joyfully — and colorfully. A special altar, called an ofrenda, is made just for these days of the dead (1 and 2 November). It has at least three tiers, and is covered with pictures of Saints, pictures of and personal items belonging to dead loved ones, skulls, pictures of cavorting skeletons (calaveras), marigolds, water, salt, bread, and a candle for each of their dead (plus one extra so no one is left out).
A special bread is baked just for this day, Pan de Muerto, which is sometimes baked with a toy skeleton inside. The one who finds the skeleton will have “good luck.” This bread is eaten during picnics at the graves along with tamales, cookies, and chocolate. They also make brightly-colored skulls out of sugar to place on the family altars and give to children.
Collected from various sources
The pan de muerto (Spanish for Bread of the Dead or Day of the Dead Bread) is a type of bread from Mexico baked during the Dia de los Muertos season, around the end of October and the official holiday is celebrated on November 2. It is a soft bread shaped in round loaves with strips of dough attached on top (to resemble bones), and usually covered or sprinkled with sugar.
Another bread in the form of a sphere on the top represents a skull. The classic recipe for Pan de Muerto is a simple sweet bread recipe with the addition of anise seeds.
Pan de Muerto is sometimes baked with a toy skeleton inside. The one who finds the skeleton will have “good luck.” This bread is eaten during picnics at the graves along with tamales, cookies, and chocolate.
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/4 cup (half a stick) margarine or butter, cut into 8 pieces
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup very warm water
- 2 eggs
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
- 1/2 teaspoon anise seed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons sugar
Instructions: Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt.
In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture.
Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, but save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.
Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into “ropes.”
On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 “bones.” Cross and lay them atop braided loaf.
Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.
When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture, except on cross bones. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Recipe found at: AzCentral
According to Japanese Buddhist belief, every summer at this time spirits of the dead return to visit their families. O-Bon is a Buddhist ceremony for welcoming back and appeasing the souls of our ancestors.
During the course of this festival, the souls of the dead are guided home, feted for several days, and then sent back to the spirit world.
The formal name of this festival is Ura-Bon, and generally falls on Aug 13 thru Aug 15. Depending on the region, however, the Bon Festival may be held one month earlier, or July 13th-15th.
The word O-Bon has its roots in the Sanskrit word ullambana, which means ‘deliverance from suffering’. The festival combines early Buddhist rituals designed to rescue the souls of the dead from hell, with native Japanese agricultural rites and the Shinto tradition of welcoming back the souls of ancestors in late summer.
Traditionally, the bones of the deceased are placed in individual urns and kept with their ancestors in a family tomb (ohaka). For several consecutive evenings during the week of O-Bon, paper lanterns painted with the family crest are hung to guide the ancestral spirits to the ohaka.
Alternatively, small welcoming fires (mukaebi) may be lit at the entrance to the home, or in front of the gate early on the evening of the 13th to receive the souls of the ancestors.
It is also customary at this time to clean the family grave and present fresh flowers and incense. Those who are unable to travel to their family burial place may instead spruce up the domestic altar. Houses are cleaned and decorated and a place is sometimes set at the family table for the recently departed.
Although many Japanese also hold Shinto beliefs, it is Buddhism that is associated with rituals concerned with death. Therefore it is the Buddhist household altar — the butsudan — that remains the focus of attention during O-Bon.
Offering stands and a small tray with tiny dishes for the symbolic meals offered to the ancestors are brought out, and a special shelf (Shoryodana or ‘Shelf of Souls’) is set up in front of the altar; it is here that, for the duration of O-Bon, the spirits are believed to dwell.
At the end of three days (on the 16th), the lanterns are again set out to guide the spirits back, and an okuribi (farewell) fire is lit to see off the souls of the ancestors.
Collected from various sources including Mythic Maps
Although it’s customary in many traditions to spend time at the grave site, cleaning, caring, and sometimes bringing offerings of food and drink, particularly during Day of the Dead celebrations, (or any of other days specifically set aside to honor the dead), a more direct method was used in ancient Greece.
Create a blend of olive oil, honey, and spring water. This may be poured directly onto the grave, or poured through a tube into the grave. Meanwhile the living should picnic nearby while sharing remembrances of the deceased.