A few years ago a friend of mine came home from her daughter’s school frustrated by all of the holiday celebrations that are culturally and religiously not applicable to her family. It got me thinking about how I might be more sensitive to those who come from a different background than my own. So many things that I take for granted like Halloween bonfires, Christmas shopping and Valentines are, at best, foreign to many of my closest friends and, at their worst, frightening reminders of horrific events in the history of their particular culture or religion.
October brings the last of the fall harvest, deer and duck hunting seasons, bird migrations, falling leaves, crisp weather, trick-or-treating and the beginning of the mainstream holiday season. It seems like a good time to begin exploring how various cultures, ethnic groups and traditions celebrate throughout the year.
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, which celebrates the legendary return of Rama and Sita after a 14-year exile. Often families make little clay lanterns for use during this holiday. There are also fireworks displays all over India. This is a 5 day holiday honoring the triumph of light over darkness or righteousness over spiritual darkness.
Sukkot is the last of the Jewish high holy days. This is a harvest festival and honors the children of Israel, led by Moses, who wandered the desert for 40 years.
The celebration includes building a sukkah, which is a temporary structure with at least 3 sides and a partially open roof. Uses include living in it or eating in it for the duration of Sukkot. The sukkah is decorated with symbols of the harvest and these vary depending on where in the world the sukkah is. In the United States harvest symbols might include corn, sheaves of wheat and oats, pumpkins and gourds, fruits or vegetables and flowers that bloom in the autumn.
“Another observance during Sukkot involves what are known as The Four Species or the lulav and etrog. The lulav consists of a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch bound together. The etrog is a citrus fruit native to Israel and is held separately. With these four species in hand, one recites a blessing and waives the species in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down).”
Sukkot ends with the Feast of the Tabernacles and with this the High Holy days of Judaism also come to a close.
Many Americans celebrate Halloween at this time of year. Halloween is celebrated by dressing up in costume and trick-or-treating at malls or in neighborhoods but this consumer holiday has its roots in Samhain, a traditional Celtic celebration. Samhain was celebrated by the ancient Celts as the third and final of the harvest festivals and as a way of reaffirming “life in the face of winter’s impending hardships and struggles.” A part of this tradition was the lighting of ritual bonfires at dusk on the night of October 31st. These fires were kept burning until dawn. Celebrants would extinguish their home fires before the festival and take embers from the bonfire home to rekindle their fires with the ceremonial fire.
All Saints Day, November 1st and All Souls Day, November 2nd are Christian celebrations. Both are celebrated in Catholic, Anglican and some Protestant churches. All Saints Day celebrates the souls of our dearly departed who have ascended into heaven, as well as the souls of Saints and martyrs. All Souls Day celebrates those whose souls may not have attained heaven yet and who can be helped along by the prayers of the living and the sacrifice of communion.
Catholics, Anglicans and most Christian faiths have happily adopted the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of animals and ecology. Many churches have a special day for blessing the animals. Parishioners bring their pets to church and the priest blesses each one in turn.
Los Dias de los Muertos are a huge celebration in Mexico. On November 1st and 2nd, families visit the graves of their loved ones who have passed on and clean, decorate and share sweet cakes and other foods with them. In the belief that the spirits of the dead can visit on these days, the families do all they can to welcome them. Candles are lit and sidewalks are strewn with bright gold and orange petals to attract the attention of the spirits of loved ones.
The days are growing shorter now. The harvest is in. The freezer is filling with venison and the smokehouse is full of hams and shoulders. Pantries are stacked with jars that glow in the sunlight and will make for full bellies come wintertime—torch red tomatoes, sunshine yellow peaches, cloud pale applesauce, and garnet bright jellies. Those of us who garden and hunt, can and preserve are feeling satisfied and proud if our larders are filled or perhaps we’re a bit worried that the harvest or hunt hasn’t gone as planned and feeling like the grocery store will be getting more of our money this year. Those who don’t do these things may be raking leaves and watching their children jump into the piles and strew them again or enjoying evening strolls that are just beginning to smell of wood smoke. No matter how we celebrate our religious holidays, we are all joined by the cycle of seasons that carry us through each year and by the little things that make each one beautiful.