The ancestors are not dead, they are still alive. They are in the stones, the trees, the newborn and the rain.
Festival of Samhain
As we move into Autumn and the nights close in, there’s a natural tendency to turn inward as we settle into the stillness of Winter. In our distant past this was a time of family gatherings around the fire. The hard work of harvest was over, larders were stocked and livestock brought in from faraway fields. Candles and lanterns provided light against the encroaching darkness. It was time to get cosy.
It was also time to remember the ancestors. The ancient festival of Samhain falls on the 31st October. Now celebrated as Halloween, the pagan roots of this festival lie deep in Northern European soil. On this night the community of the living celebrated with the community of the dead. It was believed that the veils between worlds were at their thinnest so true communion could take place: family ancestor spirits were invited back to the home; great altars were prepared with food, flowers and candles; graveyards were visited and tended to. It was a time for mourning the loss of all those who had died the previous year but, as the Celtic New Year dawned the next day, it was also a night of joyous celebration.
The spiritual aspect of Samhain have been appropriated by the Christian festivals of All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day but the carnival and kitsch that surrounds Halloween can be directly traced to ancient pagan practices: the dressing up as ghosts, witches and demons from the Other World, the carving of the pumpkin to ward away unwelcome spirits, even trick and treating comes from the belief that you must give gifts to the ancestors or they will bring misfortune. The veils
While I love the mischief and fun of Halloween, I find myself longing for the ancient sacred rituals when families and communities gathered to remember those who had passed. So last year, much to my mother’s bemusement, I set up a grand altar in the corner of her living room.
There is something very potent in setting up a family altar, dusting off old photographs and surrounding them with candles, crystals, family treasures or objects from nature: stones, feathers, plants and offering fresh fruit and a bowl of water along with their favorite tipple. Up went great-grandmother Gertrude with her rather fierce stare into the middle distance and next to her, her daughter, Rachel in a flapper dress; our grandfather, Charles followed along with his mother, looking straight to camera with round bookish glasses and a kindly wisdom. My father was there, too. Young and full of professional pride in a Karsh-like photograph that doesn’t give any hint of the young death that would befall him. I included my husband’s ancestors from the USA by way of Eastern Europe. And we included photographs of those who had died in the past year.
The altar was soon crowded with flowers and glasses of wine, vodka and whiskey and, when we gathered to light the candles and drink a toast, it felt as though the whole room – then the house – became enlivened with some other kind of energy: there was this warmth, this sense of community that reached out and away into the stars as the love from a hundred hearts settled in under that roof. My mother enthusiastically lit the candles for several nights after that and the altar stayed for a month. She said she felt an unexpected comfort with them all there animated in the candlelight. A certain kind of peace entered in.
We discovered in our research for our book The Ancestral Continuum that most other cultures still have wildly creative ceremonies and rituals for their dearly departed. The Day of the Dead in Mexico is a flamboyant, emotional, religious, fearless embracing of family spirits including picnics and parties graveside while marigold petals trailed from the graveyard lead the spirits home to the altar and rambunctious celebrations. In Vietnam, the most important celebration of the year is Tet when the entire country shuts down for two weeks and families return home to their villages to worship at family altars and clean the graves.
Throughout Africa, the Far East and indigenous cultures the world over, there remains an ongoing relationship between extended family – the living and the dead – that is dynamic, vibrant and a real source of continuity, companionship and stability. This connection is perhaps the most universal spiritual connection that we share as humankind. It stretches across religious dogma and creed. We all have ancestors; we all experience the deaths of our parents and grandparents; we all mourn and yearn for the presence of those we have loved and lost. Yet, in the rush of the Western world we rarely spare the time to look back and remember. Most of us think we are alone in our endeavours and struggles. But are we really?
According to the great African teacher Malidoma Some, the ancestors are our ‘greatest untapped resource’; that when consciously connect to their insight and wisdom and call on their influence, our lives begin to unfold in mysterious and beneficial ways.
Not long before writing the book, I decided to practice many of the rituals that we were about to tell the world about. My family was in disarray with various factions on ‘no-speaks’ with others. I felt the disconnection between us all keenly. So I took it to the ancestors: I went to the grave of my maternal grandparents in a cemetery in North London with flowers, candles and a quarter bottle of champagne – and an appeal. I could no longer be the peacemaker, I told them, these troubles are ultimately your responsibility and I ask that you sort them out! Then I silently prayed that they would give me a sign that they had acknowledged my request. On the right side of my body, I had a strange sensation and looking to the right there was a fox sitting there quietly watching me. We stared at each other for a long time before he quietly stood up and trotted away. It wasn’t long after that that my family began to literally pull itself together. And, as I wrote the book – often in the early morning or late at night – I would often be visited by foxes outside my window on my otherwise very busy West London street. The presence of the ancestors became a palpable thing: they would wake me with words in the middle of the night; books, interviews, programmes related to the book would fall into my lap; and my dreams became multi-coloured messages from the beyond.
In our book, we encourage readers to find out about their ancestors, create a family altar and call on them when they are at a cross roads or crisis. Initially many have been sceptical: How on earth can those unknown to us, whose names are unfamiliar, have any bearing on our lives? But in most cases, paying attention to those who have gone before has brought immeasurable gifts and guidance, comfort and compassion.
It doesn’t always have to be at the more spiritual spectrum either. There are quite practical, psychological reasons for making a connection with our ancestors. At an early meeting with our publishers in America one of the more sceptical editors asked how a family altar could possibly help her in her daily life? She couldn’t get her head around what she considered to be “ancestor worship”. After explaining the simple power of connection and memory she recalled her grandmother, a hugely accomplished woman, a hard worker and tough cookie and understood how it might help her to simply have a photograph of this ancestor on her mantelpiece and light a candle to her before she stepped into another challenging day in New York City. Another editor described the value of knowing about your ancestors: One of their authors was a highly accomplished academic who had no idea where her love of cooking came from or why she felt vaguely ashamed of it. Her mother, also highly accomplished, hardly cooked at home and didn’t value her daughter’s natural ability. It wasn’t until this author began a memoir of her family that she discovered that her grandmother – her mother’s mother – had been a cook for other people and her mother had been deeply ashamed about this. Now this author has been able to indulge her passion for cooking and allow it to provide an earthy balance to her intellectual life: while also connecting her to her grandmother and her gifts.
We are the most recent fruition of a long, long line of people who stretch back through history. When we are born, we take our place on a family tree that is a constellation of personality and achievement, of joy and failure and heartbreak. We all carry a unique set of genes that influence our physical and psychological health, our life choices and cultural imprints: our beliefs, our habits, our attitudes to religion, food money, love are all formed within families that may have carried these imprints for generations.
Much of what we have received from our ancestors is good but there may be some traits that are more challenging and as Denise Linn writes, “The choices that we make in life are not unique to us. They are a distillation of all that has come before us. The more we become aware of our ancestral lineage, the more freedom we will have to honour what is best and let go of the rest.”
Equally the trans-generational effects of war trauma, sudden death, sickness cause ruptures in the family tree. Memory infuses itself into each generation showing up as mental illness, addiction and other dysfunctions. But we are perhaps the first generation who, less concerned with sheer survival, has the time and resources to unravel our family history, understand why we are the way we are and begin to heal pain that may have been passed down to us, in effect healing the entire family tree through space and time. Even the act of simple remembrance has the power to bring about reconciliation and restore connection – especially with those who have been lost to the family in some way through committing shameful acts or simply by dying in some tragic way that threw the family into grief and so they were never spoken about again. As we remember them they too are restored to the family tree bringing new wholeness to the entire family.
There are reasons why cultures around the world continue to honour and revere their ancestors. In Africa, the bones of the ancestors are often buried under the family home as they are believed to play a big part in family affairs; altars to the ancestors adorn the homes, restaurants and businesses in the Far East, in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong and China and every day they are given flowers, alcohol, fruit in displays of abundance in even the poorest places. The American Indians honour the ancestors in every ceremony that they do. Only they take it even further and call on Nature as our ancestors: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the trees, insects and animals as our very relatives establishing that we are, in fact, a part of nature and not apart from it.
On a merely human level, this devotion brings comfort that we are not, in fact, alone. We are always surrounded by the benevolence of those who walked before us and the benign influence of unseen forces. This brings a quiet power, a confidence, a trust, a sense that we are always being taken care of.
‘I connect with my ancestors on a daily basis. I am of them, and they are in me,’ explains Mbali Creazzo, teacher and medicine woman, ‘It is because of them that I am here. I talk to them about what is happening in my life and I ask them for help and they provide with me with strength, support and resilience. They are hungry for our connection and want to take care of us. Once you begin to honour them in your daily life, you enter into a mystical, magical process with them.’
If daily connection sounds a little daunting then the simplest way to begin is to reclaim the sacredness of Samhain. Find some photographs of your ancestors and set up a table somewhere at home. Arrange the photographs with candles and precious family heirlooms – a book or piece of jewellery – buy some flowers and include a bowl of water. Then on the night of 31st of October bring the family together, light the candles, give the ancestors their favourite tipple and toast them with your own. Prepare to be amazed by the immediacy of connection, the sense of love, forgiveness and peace that enters in. Then go out and celebrate all that you are and about to become.