It is Halloween this weekend. With all the carved pumpkins, witch costumes, zombie face paintings and spooky sweets, it is hard to get back to the essence of this feast of the start of winter. To honour the dead. To create light in darkness. To be reminded that life goes on with our children.
The ritual of children carrying a lantern, going around singing and being rewarded with sweets must go back to an old pagan ritual, which found it’s way into modern societies in different forms. In Spain it is connected to Epiphany on the 6th of January, and children go around dressed up as the three wise men. When I grew up in the Netherlands we went around on st Martins day, the 11th of November, using a sugarbeet as a lantern, because they were widely available. I wouldn’t be surprised that lighting candles, singing at Christmas and getting presents go back to same tradition. And now this practice has found its form as trick or treating on Halloween.
Parading children, singing lively and carrying the light must be a reminder that in this period of slumbering bleakness these children are our future.
But as much as it is about the promise of a future, it is also time to look back at the past. In the Catholic Church the 1st of November is the day of the dead. In Mexico it is a very important festival. People visit the graves of their loved ones, bringing offerings to comfort the departed. Feeding the dead, so they won’t come back and feed on us. In Elizabeth Luard’s ‘Spiritual Food’ I read that this is important to many cultutes, from Celtic to Chinese, to make sure you are at peace with your ancestors.
In modern society where the future is bright, and everything has to be new and better, we are not caring anymore what our ancestors would make of this. We stand in awe at the fireworks at Bonfire night, forgetting that the bangs should scare unhappy ghosts of the past. On the 11th of November we commemorate those who made the ultimate offer to our country, but what are we offering them? We treat them with silence.
To make peace with your lost ones might be a decisive step in accepting who you are, where you have come from, the relationships with the departed which have formed you. Before you have done that, it might be difficult to move on to the future.
Food plays an important part in all this. Nothing brings you back to your childhood like the taste or smell of something. That is why I am hosting 2 dinners with an Absent Friend theme this weekend. It is important toast to them, so that they are happy with us. We eat aromatic spiced soul cake, to evoke fond memories. And rosemary, which scent brings me back to the paradise allotment of my Italian neighbour in Utrecht, 20 years ago. To Franco.