If you’re like me, you like the idea of Halloween, but you’re not too thrilled about the direction we’ve taken it in our culture. Maybe you’re at a place in life where the provocative costumes and rapey horror flicks no longer fit your idea of an enjoyable evening. Maybe you want a more quiet, contemplative, meaningful, reflective, and life-affirming Halloween.
Before I get into the meat of it here, as you may know, I am religious. I attend a progressive Lutheran church that will be practicing All Saints’ Day this coming Sunday. With that comes a number of rituals and ceremonies baked in.
However, if you’re not religious or if the churches in your locale make you cringe, I wrote this post so that you can bring back the sanctity of this evening in your home. I’ve pulled elements from All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, Día de Los Muertos, and a couple other similar traditions that fall on or around this date.
All this requires is a little openness and the desire for a new experience this dark night. Here we go…
1. Offer up prayers to the saints of your life
We have our saints in church and maybe you share a reverence for them. Either way, I’m sure there are people who’ve passed — some you’ve known, some not — who you consider to be saintly, in a sense. The thing I love so much about the saints is their humanity. If you read about their stories, you see that they weren’t sterile, sanctimonious, pious people. They lived real, flawed, gritty lives before they became saints (and often after).
Maybe your saint is your late grandfather who fought in WW2 and was a bit of a rabble-rouser but had a heart of gold. Or maybe it’s someone you’ve never met — a public figure or celebrity, perhaps.
If you don’t have a photo of them, print one out and put it in a nice black frame. Light a candle in front of it, sit, and contemplate what they mean to you. Rest in the silence of their presence for a while. It’s uncomfortable, indeed — especially for the first few minutes. But if you can get past the urge to jump back on your phone (the struggle is real), you’ll notice a calmness. Bask in it, if you can.
2. Don’t forget the living saints
Okay, there are people I’ve already deemed personal saints of mine who are still alive. For example, when James Taylor passes away (I don’t even like thinking about it), I’m going to be in mourning for a month. His music ties me right back to my childhood listening to Sweet Baby James with my parents and wearing his Greatest Hits tape out (yes, I said ‘tape’). I wish James Taylor was my uncle and I could learn to play guitar in his barn and go maple sugaring in the Berkshires with him. Call me basic, but James Taylor is a saint to me. As are a few personal friends and family who might be reading this that I don’t want to embarrass right now.
Print out some photos and light a candle for them too.
3. Eat light meals or fast
Fasting is part of the All Saints’ Day tradition, but you don’t have to take it that far. Eat lightly that day. Go with perennial autumnal plants like kale, rhubarb, asparagus, or leeks (in North America, at least). Big, joyous meals come a month from now. This is a somber time that calls for a bit of prudence when it comes to feasting.
That being said, to get the full experience, fast for the day. You can do it!
3. Channel your inner florist
I can’t believe I’m writing this. Flowers on Halloween? Yes, it’s true. I suggest you consider swapping out the blood-laden zombie prostitute figurines with flowers. I know, the LEAST Halloween thing of all, right? But really, flowers are a great contrast to the somberness of the candles and photos of dead people. One reflects the other. You don’t want to be a total downer on this day. Keep a balance with a strong floral element.
4. A smattering of skulls is good
If the floral recommendation is too bright for you, pepper in some skulls. Skulls keep the intent of remembering the dead without going into the perverse (as long as your skeleton isn’t performing some lude sexual act on another skeleton on your front porch).
5. Watch Coco
Come to think of it, everything I’ve talked about so far can be found (in essence, at least) in the movie, Coco. Seriously, this movie nails the spirit of this time of the year and I LOVE the ceremonies around Día de Los Muertos.
Coco was the first glimpse my 4-year-old daughter (at the time) had of death. The truth is, we have no idea what happens to our spirit when this body stops functioning. Anything we living humans say is mere speculation. So we’re going to make up a story regardless.
Well, I say let’s give kids a healthy story — not a bleak one (the nothingness of hardened atheists) or one based on judgment and wrath (the heaven/hell narrative of fundamentalist Christians). Coco allowed me to have a conversation with my daughter about death that was healthy. And with both of my parents on the other side of the flower bridge, we have that conversation more than a lot of families do.
6. Light a bonfire for Samhain
Let’s face it, our culture (yes, even modern Christianity) has deep pagan roots. No need to suppress or project it. It’s all a part of our story and some of us maintain pagan rituals and a pagan lifestyle today (some without even knowing it — the pagan roots of Christmas go deep). All good by me!
Samhain (meaning ‘summer’s end’) is a Celtic pagan holiday celebrated from October 31st to November 1st. It marks the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice and is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals.
Bonfires are the biggest ritual of this holiday (at least of the ones that we can legally perform in the States). These bonfires were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were a number of rituals involving them.
The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.
Hey, it sure beats getting drunk at a dive bar and passing out in a nondescript location on Halloween night. If you have space, get a bonfire going (and invite me over because having moved to Chicago from rural Nevada where bonfires were aplenty, I miss ‘em!).
7. Visit your local graveyard
I have a confession. I’ve never visited my mother’s grave and she passed away 23 years ago. I have my reasons, but I feel horrible about it. This holiday has made me make this a priority rather than another item on my someday-to-do list.
But maybe you’re not close to a graveyard where anyone you know is buried (me neither). If you can, make a trip to your closest one anyways. Take a meditative stroll through it. Read the headstones. Ponder who these people were — are — whose lives are showcased there. Pack a picnic with a blanket and a candle. I know, this sounds weird, but consider it. Graveyards are the most peaceful places around.
Let the death that surrounds you in a graveyard give you a new appreciation of your life.
Know that there is still time for you to do something with this living body of yours and the world that it comes into physical contact with. All of it is a blessing. Graveyards anchor this truth.
8. Tell (and listen to) stories
Okay, I’ll end on this one. So far, most of these have been fairly introspective (minus the Samhain bonfire). If you’re fortunate enough to be around others on this night, consider creating a space in the evening for getting in a circle and talking about loved ones who’ve passed.
No, this won’t fly at a rave or a sports bar. But if you’ve read this far, my guess is that you might place yourself in a different environment than that (if not, no judgment here — you do you).
Light cocktails are a good idea to provide encouragement (though you don’t need any slurring drunks droning on and on and ruining the vibe). Make this a sacred safe space. Turn the phones off. Give others your attention as they tell their stories. And take the necessary time to tell yours. Let the emotions freely flow, from laughter to sobbing (there will likely be both). And finish it off with a closing thank you to the group.
If you’re alone, speak your stories out loud or journal them. Get them out of your head. Speak them. Let the dead revisit you through your words.
In closing, the main theme here is to create a sacred space to remember those who’ve passed. Go ahead and be somber and reflective. Let this night be an excuse to contemplate the end of life so as to live the one you have to the fullest while you can.