Ancestors, Samhain and Matariki 2024

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Seasons Newsletter | 0 comments



Every Sunday my Aunt Jessie would visit the graveyard.

The graveyard lay on the other side of town, a little further out than our house, so it became a natural thing for me to join her at our gate and run alongside.

This is how I came to explore the world of tombstones and the sleeping presence of the ancestors of the town. The mystery of death became part of my landscape.



The dead and the living


Later in life, I discovered how my Celtic forebears related to the mystery of death. They felt the presence of their ancestors at times of seasonal transition, particularly the crossing from autumn into winter. At this time the veil between the worlds was said to be thin. Spirits of the dead came out at night and would roam among the living. This is when the festival of Samhain took place.

For Christians, the idea of the dead visiting the earth took the form of the feast day of All Saints/ All Souls/ All Hallows Eve. Later the churches in Britain settled on a fixed date for this feast day: the same autumn/winter threshold as Celtic Samhain.

It was no coincidence. Christian festivals were often overlaid on to the old pagan ones.

In the northern hemisphere, Samhain (later known as Halloween) took place on the night of October 31 and into the next day, November 1.

In the southern hemisphere, Samhain, the midway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice, falls on April 30. As I write, it is very close.



Why ancestors?


Crossing into the dark awakens our soul life. We are more open to connection with those who have died, both recently and in the deep past of our ancestry.

In te ao Māori, the winter festival of Matariki centres deeply on the ancestors. The ancestors are celebrated and welcomed as they return with the stars after being lost over the horizon. The ancestors hold cultural and tribal knowledge, and without them, life would be bereft.

Pākehā are still learning to accept the importance of researching our ancestry, even if some of the information gained is troubling. The struggles and achievements of our forbears have laid a foundation. Their transgressions open up an opportunity for us to make atonement.

When we know our ancestors, we know where we have come from. We gain a stronger sense of who we are. (For those who do not know their genetic ancestral line, a sense of cultural ancestors may take its place or the line of their adopted family.)

Samhain is an opportunity to delve deeper into our history. (The last chapter of my book Growing into Wisdom explores this theme more thoroughly.)



Honouring the ancestors at Samhain


Two years ago, as Samhain approached, I was thinking of the younger generation. How could I bring death and dying into the landscape of my granddaughters? How could I prepare them for my death?

In my book, Sun, Moon and Stars, I suggest that a family member  create a simple poster or posters to show the more recent ancestral line of that family. The posters can then be brought out at the approach to their annual Samhain celebration.

The simple ritual of lighting a candle on a black cloth, then naming those who have died, is one that is always rich and tender for me. We use stones, or pieces of paper with a name written on each one, to place around the candle as we share memories and allow tears to fall.


Planning a pilgrimage


Two years ago I also was prompted to take my granddaughters to the burial ground where my parents’ grave lies. We took flowers and a bucket of scrapers and scrubbing brushes to clean and refresh their grave. I told stories about these great grandparents that the young ones had never known.

They learnt that the dead are very much with us through memories or presence, especially when the veils are thin.

They learnt how the cord of love winds through the dark maze of death, connecting us with the beloved ones who have merged with the elements.



 Telling the stories


I told my granddaughters how I ran alongside Aunt Jessie and helped her wash out the jars and place daffodils, camellias or coreopsis into them, and how my sister and I daringly danced on the slabs of concrete, wondering if we would awaken the dead.

I told them of Aunt Jessie’s story about the old woman who gave me sweets and who now lay under the earth, and how I stood in that very graveyard as Aunt Jessie’s coffin was lowered into the rich Taranaki soil while the autumn rain cascaded over us.



If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see 

your parents and all generations of your ancestors.

All of them are alive in this moment.

—Thich Nhat Hahn


For more information, see Celebrating the Southern Seasons, p. 207




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