Running With Scissors

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When you read this, it will be November. No more oddly-dressed, spooky creatures showing up in your neighbourhood. No more scary television ads. No more eerie howls or spine-tingling hoots and whispers.

But enough about the US Presidential election.

A lesser person (ahem!) would be unable to resist making something of the fact that the election was held on All Souls Day. Instead we'll move along and talk about the day itself.

We don't make much of All Souls around here — once Hallowe'en is over with, we're pelting hell-for-leather toward Thanksgiving and Christmas (several area stores have been displaying their Christmas merchandise for the last month or so). But among the residents of Mexico and the South-western US, All Souls Day is known as El Día de los Muertos and it's a big deal indeed. Unlike our Hallowe'en, the Day of the Dead celebrates and welcomes the spirits of those who have died. Hallowe'en originated in Europe and reflects the European concept of death. In contrast, the indigenous population of Mexico held beliefs similar to those of many non-Western religions; they believed that this life is a dream and that when you die, you awake to your true life. So death is not to be feared but welcomed.

The Day of the Dead was celebrated long before the Spanish conquered that part of the world and forcibly converted the population to Christianity and, over the years, the celebration evolved, now combining elements of the indigenous pagan and Christian religions. Today the holiday is actually celebrated over two days. The first on 1 November is El Día de los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels, and celebrates children who have died. The second is the traditional Day of the Dead and reflects the belief that once a year the spirits of the dead return to visit their descendents and to eat-drink-and-be-merry along with them.

The women make special foods to celebrate the feast, among them pan de muertos, a rich bread often shaped like skulls or bones. People also erect small altars in their homes to honour the memory of their loved ones, adorning these with food, candy, small ornaments, miniature coffins and the like. Families will spend time at the cemetery, cleaning and decorating the graves, and they often bring a picnic along to share with their departed loved ones. The graves of children are decorated with toys and balloons; adults' graves are decorated with flowers, favourite foods and ornaments or belongings. Many towns also hold parades.

It's difficult for most American to view all the hoopla as anything but morbid. We have a hard time with death, viewing it as the enemy and something to be evaded as long as possible. (Some wag once noted that Americans are just like Europeans, except we think dying is optional.) The notion of actually celebrating death is as foreign to our national psyche as... well, I can't think of anything. Which illustrates my point, I suppose.

Not surprisingly, there's a real dearth of All Souls Day music but the determined listener can in fact come up with some. A favourite of mine is 'All Souls Night' by Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt1. Ms McKennitt specialises in Celtic music and, during the late 1980s and 1990s, she was quite busy recording and touring. Sadly she hasn't released much new work since the death of her partner Ronald Rees in 1998, instead devoting much of her time and energy to humanitarian and charitable efforts. If you enjoy listening to Celtic music and haven't heard of this singer, you're missing a real treat.

Which reminds me: Ms McKennitt also produced two of my favourite Christmas CDs, a short one called A Winter Garden and To Drive the Cold Winter Away. Now that November is upon us and winter is beginning its assault on those of us in the Great Frozen North, it's time to start thinking about Christmas. I'm too young and too much of an American to consider making friends with death just yet. So away with the Hallowe'en decorations, pull out the Christmas lights and music! (Left-over Hallowe'en candy makes a great addition to Christmas cookies, by the way.)

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1'All Souls Night' is from her CD The Visit. The music you hear when you first enter the site is from 'Mummer's Dance', one of her most popular songs.

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