Like any and most American families, in the given span of ten years or so you notice at least two things: you see less people at family gatherings and then you see more people at those same wonderful moments. The reason is simple. People die, people get married, and people are born. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well there’s a lot more to it. At a recent and quaint gathering of my cousins and me, all of whom have entered the 50+ Club, we spoke directly about this very observation and came up with an amazing idea. We decided that we’re going to create a generational cookbook of the best dishes new and old accompanied with stories and pictures that will bring all this to life. It sounds exciting especially to me who loves to eat. Everyone from each of the existing generations will contribute recipes, photos and lore which must all be shared while preparing and serving these dishes even for gatherings outside the family circle. And why not? Share the wealth! All this might sound like a lot of work producing an exponential amount of fun and family ties, but more importantly it’s absolutely necessary to understand death. By now you should be asking how does a cookbook help you understand death? Well, what stops when you die? Among many other things, you stop eating. But you don’t stop living. Because everyone who has lived and died is still alive, somewhere. And don’t we bring those people close to us again and again as we remember them?
Does this sound scary? Well it shouldn’t because all this brings us to a “trifecta” of annual and memory-making gems beginning with Halloween and concluding with Day of the Dead which in turn evolves into our social and spiritual cue to start our engines to enter the world of Thanksgiving and Christmas. When you get right down to it, it is all pretty exciting and marvelous in a way. Who doesn’t like to eat? But, on the other hand, who likes to say goodbye to loved ones who leave us in death? Whole new answers, right? Well, let’s take a look at this more carefully as we start by resurfacing our notion of the trifecta. We will continue with the assumption that all this life and death stuff, painful as it is for many of us to behold, less talk about it, is always a mystery that finds amazing expression when human beings express themselves with burning and sometimes inexplicable longing lodged deep within the human heart. We will speak here about the relationship between or among, Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, otherwise known as Day of the Dead. They all are fundamentally linked and inseparable and have been at least since the seventh century. To be clear, we are going to have to start from the middle and work our way from there because this is the best way to approach this mystery.
Halloween, October 31
The night before on the Eve of All Hallows, similarly marks those who ascended to celestial heights but from a very different and evolving perspective. I don’t seem to grow weary of telling and re-telling my friends and newly arrived family members about how exciting Halloween was for me as a child. My costume? Why, Yogi Bear, of course!! “I’m smarter than the average bear!” Either I’ve lost you on that reference or you’re sitting there with a huge grin on your face. I know I am. Halloween like so many of our holidays were engineered precisely for children. Whether it was birthdays, St. Valentine’s Day, Christmas or today’s enormous expression of color and calories, we either enjoyed the day and loved the pageantry of it all, or we lived through our own children and innocent ones and still kept happiness alive if only in some small way. Everything great and good begins small and unassuming like the mustard seed. And like the famous woman with a few measures of flour, it all needs our constant attention. It is just like our faith which must lead us and sustain us into adulthood. Especially into adulthood. This is where we learn that the most frightening things in our lives are often not wearing costumes or doling out candy, but are true monsters, large and little, that can rob of us of happiness, if we allow. And among those fear-mongering creatures lurks the face of death, the quintessential “trick.” Jesus loved children and especially all the children still inside each and every one of us. Go on, smile on Halloween. Say a prayer and ask the Lord for all the treats that He has promised especially eternal life and for protection against the wicked tricks that lie in wait.
All Saints Day, November 1
All Saints Day in the Church’s calendar celebrates all those who have made it into heaven. In many ways we could say that this is our day, a day of hope and encouragement where we chance a glimpse of a glorified existence after the earthly battles of stress and worries and disappointment have all passed, laced with so many great and awesome momentous chapters that helped keep our focus on heaven such as the birth of children, outstanding resolutions and breathtaking surprises. It is on this day as well as on others that we hear from the last book of the Bible, Revelation. I can’t think of another sacred book more controversial than this one; also known as the “Apocalypse.” This fascinating and mysterious text, ever since it was written, has been the topic of countless theories, teachings, movements, books, commentaries, and more recently, films and multimedia television series, episodes and documentaries. Unfortunately, most of them have strayed from the Theological and Scriptural meaning of the intent of the Apostle John and have clearly done much more harm than good. Because of these wild theories, it seems as if every ten years or so, people have been trying to predict the end of the world every time a certain number lines up in a particular order or because of the discovery of some ingenious mathematical equation that spells horrible and imminent destruction. Remember the Year 2000 scare? Or do you recall the December 21, 2012 prediction based on some data from an ancient calendar chiseled on some huge stone that would run out of days on that date? People, just get a new rock! To concentrate on the cataclysmic end of the world on All Saints Day or December 31, or some other arbitrary day that was arrived with some clever mathematician wand of expertise is to lose sight of all these days. Today is about our life today, how we live it and where we all hope to go with all the ones we have ever loved with all our hearts and souls. As God’s children now and joyfully anticipating our own resurrection, we reasonably ask, “what do we do and how do we act?” Just as Moses in the Old Testament came down the mountain with the Law in the form of the Ten Commandments, Jesus walked up the mountain and fulfilled what the great lawgiver started and mapped out the way to survive “the time of great distress” for each and everyone of us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and insulted. The Beatitudes create the blueprint of living a beautiful, Christian life. These eight blessings are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and respond to the natural desire that we all have for true and lasting happiness. This is how we become saints! The Beatitudes also proclaim the blessings and rewards that have already been secured for those who love Jesus. Just imagine, there’s a place in heaven for us and it has our name on it.
Day of The Dead November 2
Here is the final installment of our trifecta and no doubt the most difficult. It is the most challenging because we must at all costs avoid the extremes that many take with this episode. Either we under-state the effect that death has on us, thinking out of sight, out of mind, or we overdo it placing way too much attention on the dark, gloomy almost fatalistic view that although someone wonderful has died, everything has died including ourselves. All Souls Day is the moment when Jesus is literally taking our minds and hearts and gently walking with us to face our deepest and darkest fear, that of death itself, in very much the same way He did. In wonderfully typical Old Testament dramatic delivery, the Prophet Ezekiel begins the healing hope of this victory over death: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” But for a time, a seemingly endless amount of time for some, there is a veil of sadness which must be faced and we do that with our prayers for the dead, visits to the cemetery, private and public Altars of Remembrance with pictures and yes, more predominantly lately, with feasts and festivals that celebrate with food and party the most frightening aspect of life itself. Sounds very much alive, doesn’t it?
Strange and wonderful we human beings, wouldn’t you say? What have we learned from our trifecta of days and dramatic moments? It looks like the three days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls we have uncovered a pattern. What do we do with life?
In the final analysis, Halloween, All Saints and Day of the Dead have everything to do with the living, family, eternity and memory. And when you think about it all those things have to do with the way each of us comes into this world, experiences love and acceptance and what truly brings us hope against all odds. And while we’re still on this planet, rituals and practices and yes, food not only nourish us but also bring us together for many significant moments that can never be repeated. Everyone who lives knows we’re going to die. Everyone who loves knows that we’re going to get hurt. And everyone who says goodbye knows we’re going to say hello again. So what we do in our own fashion as human beings is face whatever frightens us, symbolized at times with masks and crazy costumes, think and pray with all the holy ones whom we know have made it into heaven and then recall with unreserved and completely understandable and proportionate sadness all who have gone before us marked with sign of faith. This we do at times with smiles on our faces and yet tears in our eyes, to confront whatever scares us so we can keep going until there’s no more death, no more suffering and no more hunger. And that is why, my friends, death is a meal best served live because it simply has no more power over us.