Today my UU church celebrated the Gaelic festival of Samhain which influenced our modern day Halloween. Samhain is a celebration of the Celtic New Year which begins on November 1st- a time of year when the harvest is finishing up and winter is beginning. During Samhain, which begins on the night of October 31st, the Gaels believed the border between this world and the otherworld to be at its thinnest, which allowed the dead to reach back through the veil separating them from the living.
During Samhain, bonfires were lit and costumes were donned, much like how we celebrate Halloween today. But Samhain differed from Halloween in that it was also a celebration of those who had passed on and was an opportunity to pay respect to one's ancestors, family members, friends and other loved ones who had died.
Celebrating Samhain in church today, we skipped the bonfire and costume part and headed straight to the remembrance of our family members who had passed on. We were asked to bring a memento of our loved one and place it on an altar during a part of the service that reflected on a Native American story about the sacrifice of Rainbow Crow.
Rainbow Crow sacrificed his beautiful song and feathers to save the animals of the world by bringing the warmth of fire to them when they were freezing due to the cold of winter. Rainbow Crow flew up to the heavens to retrieve fire from the creator and the fire charred his feathers black and ruined his melodic voice, resulting in a huge personal sacrifice as he tried to save those he cared for.
Relating Rainbow Crow's sacrifice to the sacrifices made by our loved ones is where the service took on special meaning for me. My minister talked about how those we loved made many sacrifices in their lifetime and that these sacrifices become sacraments when we learn something from them. When we learn to live our life differently because of what our loved ones taught us through their sacrifices, sacrifices become sacraments.
I lost my brother just over two years ago and he would be celebrating his birthday this week if he were still alive. Even without Samhain, I would feel close to him at this time of year. But with the celebration at church today, as I lay his Michigan State shirt upon the altar, I felt especially close to him. I thought of those lessons he brought to me, sometimes at great personal sacrifice to himself, and made a promise to act on those lessons in his honor.
This new way of seeing Halloween, of being made aware of and celebrating Samhain is what I love about the UU church. It stretches me and teaches me and offers up meaning and authenticity where I least expect it. Halloween and this time of year and how I will celebrate it forever more will be changed.
Hey Erik, Michigan State is having a great year! They are 8-1, lost to Iowa today...but you probably already knew that didn't you? Someone commented that they were Michigan fans when they saw me take your shirt off the altar. Michigan, by the way, is having a terrible year :).