Transforming an often miserable Hallowe’en into the Day of the Dead – a remembrance and celebration of our dead.
The snowdrifts are knee high and hard crusted; the snow underfoot is so dry it squeaks. With the temperature hovering at minus 20 Celsius, the wind does its level best to blow us over. It is indisputably the depths of a Prairie winter, never mind what the calendar says. What the calendar says, however, is that it is Hallowe’en, the 1984 edition.
The snow that fell in Saskatoon six weeks ago is destined to stay until next spring: there will be no autumn this year. But that injury does not concern us yet: Sufficient unto each day is the weather thereof, or so it says in the Good Book. Or that’s what the Good Book would say, if unseasonable weather were much of an evil in the Middle East. Tonight what concerns us is the added insult of truly lousy weather for this necessarily outdoors event.
Costumes sized to fit over light jackets are unable to accommodate winter parkas. Face paint is obscured by balaclavas — all that stands between their wearers’ noses and almost immediate frost bite. Sidewalks long since impassable, the kids take to the streets, literally. It’s the lousiest Hallowe’en in my experience, not that the bar was ever set very high.
It all started in Edmonton in the mid 1950s. Hanging over the back of the couch, I watch anxiously through the living room picture window as an occasional snowflake drifts into view from the classic leaden sky. If it really snows, I know for a fact that Mom won’t let us go out. How I know this, I can’t say. Has she Spoken? Have older siblings Opined? Am I just Expecting the Worst? I don’t know: the fact may be fiction but the fear is real. We do go out that night, as it turns out, but the lasting memory is not the thrill of the chase but the angst preceding it.
Subsequent Hallowe’ens aren’t much better. Breathless anticipation and huge expectations are left unsatisfied, again and again. Vague recollections jumble together: neighbourhood and school parties in inadequate costumes; being exhorted to sing for candy by strangers down the block who clearly don’t appreciate their folly; stale candy in a pillow case on the closet floor, long after the first rush of enthusiasm is gone. And through it all, that concern about the weather: would it, or would it not, cooperate this year?
And then, suddenly, the participation phase is over. Just as I am old enough to go the distance and collect a really worthwhile hoard, the invisible timer chimes and it is done. I hang in there a few more years on door duty, handing out candy to munchkins and resenting the older kids who violate the unstated age cut-off that I have obeyed. And then it is truly done, until I have munchkins of my own to suit up in lousy costumes and on whose behalf I anxiously watch the sky.
By the mid 1990s, I have enjoyed about as much Hallowe’en as I can stand, I figure, when I meet a true Hallowe’en aficionada. Tiny, she looks younger than her late-20-something years. Studless, she seems a bit square for her apparent years. Witty, she belies any dark stereotypes. Quiet and helpful, she provokes no suspicion of devil worship or wiccan rituals under a full moon. Yet black and orange are her favourite colours, and Hallowe’en her favourite holiday. The day’s paraphernalia is her idea of decor: jack-o’-lanterns, spiders, cobwebs, black cats, skeletons and skulls. It isn’t about the candy — well, maybe just a little bit, chocolate being a major food group — but, rather, the dark symbols that evoke the dark thread in life itself. Her ambition is to be in Mexico for early November some year.
Just after we celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead. Families decorate the gravesites of loved ones with flowers, provide treats for the dearly departed, and remember them as they lived. These are not private observances but, rather, community celebrations — of life and, yes, of death. Of death as a part of life.
Many cultures celebrate something roughly equivalent to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, but as a rule, North Americans aren’t among them. For most of us, Hallowe’en is a meaningless festival that has drifted away from its spiritual moorings. Few of us fear ghosts and goblins anymore, because few of us believe in them. And we are loath to name what we do fear: the steady decline of capabilities, the loss of independence, the degradation that is anything but graceful. And, of course, death itself.
Yet how much richer life can be when we acknowledge that it will end; when we acknowledge and nurture our connections with those who have died as well as those who still live; when we acknowledge the storm of contradictory feelings life and death evoke in us, confident that we will not be blown off our feet as they swirl around us and through us. Fear and confidence. Loss and love. Grief and comfort. Pain and amusement. Anger and acceptance.
This year on Hallowe’en I will again be on call for the munchkins trooping to my door, and I will watch the sky anxiously on their behalf. But the Day of the Dead will be for me: I will lay out the colours of death and life — the black and the orange — and speak the names of my dead, since I cannot visit their graves. I will remember them as they lived, as they died, and as they continue to live in me. And if there be snow this year, let it blizzard, by God. For myself, I no longer fear the storm.