Monday, October 31, 2011

Day Of The Dead

Dia de los muertos is happening now. The marigolds are being strewn on the graves of dead friends and family, along with their favourite sweets and drinks, as people visit cemeteries to honor their dead. Although, never having been to Mexico, it's likely that I'm making this up from details gleaned from children's television programming, tattoo art, and generally not knowing what I'm talking about. In North America, this past weekend we celebrated Halloween - a time for candy, jack-o-lanterns, and college girls dressed up as sexy versions of blue-collar professions.

As the days get shorter and colder, we're inexorably edging towards winter. The trees this fall have been outstandingly colourful, with brisk, sunny days. Sweaters have been put back into rotation, heavy tights have been pulled on, and our flip flops have been retired in favour of boots and sneakers. It's a time of cozying up, of final patio beers, of moving parties from the porch inside to the kitchen. Picnics turn into potlucks, beach days turn into game nights, and instead of spiking our ginger beer with buffalo-grass vodka (trust me), we're stirring creme de menth into our hot chocolates (again, trust me).

Spring has rebirth symbols like whoa. The birds come back, the buds on the trees burst into fresh green leaves, and the days get longer. It also holds the most important Christian holiday, Easter, which is literally about the resurrection of Christ. If you're into that sort of thing, it's a potent idea, resonating with images about life after death and the cycles of the natural world.

But I think we also need a way to talk about death, proper-styles. Not that if-you-are-of-me-you-shalt-be-reborn stuff Christianity offers; we are, culturally, not terrific at handling the idea of death, and the reality of death in our lives. Halloween is a perversion, but not in a Christian-right sort of way; I'm not offended that we use the day to transform ourselves into scary monsters, or elements of our personalities that usually remain hidden (ergo, "the day of id," and I'm looking at you, frat boys in drag). That's pretty harmless.

Samhain, a Gaelic predecessor to Halloween, originated as a way to mark the end of harvest season, and the costumes we associate now with Halloween were used to confuse the dead as they walked the earth with us. Over time, the holiday shifted from its agrarian roots into a children's festival centering on candy and UNICEF boxes. Parents deck out front lawns with spooky accessories: ghosts hung from trees, skeletal hands wrenching out of the ground, witches, goblins, cauldrons, headstones, giant spiders, giant rats, and gourds. All the hallmarks of a haunting are there, and the entertainment industry usually puts out a scary movie or two, or at least a Halloween episode of our favourite shows, to get in on the action. Halloween is small potatoes compared to a shopping mega-festival like Christmas, but the candy windfall is an enjoyable blood-sugar spike in a rapidly darkening fall afternoon.

That shift, though, towards making it a children's holiday, has meant that the dead the day originally honoured have been swept aside. We're a more medically advanced society than the medieval Celts, but I doubt that we know any more about what goes on On The Other Side than they did. Our fascination with the undead is longstanding, but we can never quite reconcile the idea that our dead - family members and friends who have passed on - are one of the spooky Halloween Dead, out to mischief-make while the door between this world and the next is ajar.

Which brings me back to Mexico. While it sucks that they set aside only one or two days out of the year to honour the dead, it beats the hell out of our zero. Fresh mourning means that folks go through phases of honouring and ignoring their recently-passed loved ones: sometimes, you want to hang their picture, light some candles, and talk to them, even if it gives you the craziest feeling of knowing you're that talking to someone who can't hear you and hoping against hope that they're hearing you anyway. Other times? Not so much. Much like the bible's commandment to honour your parents, honouring our dead doesn't mean that there isn't resentment, anger, sadness, relief or any other complicated feelings under the veneer of love. And those feelings sometimes mellow with age, but they never go away completely.

I've seen a lot of Day of the Dead-inspired Halloween costumes this year; maybe I'm just keyed in, because that was my costume, but there were a few of us floating around. I wish there was a way to incorporate that system into our lives up here, to honour and celebrate those we've lost throughout the ages. Let's take Halloween back from the kids and invite everyone, living and dead, to the party.

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