As Halloween dawned, I found a perplexed Nina reading The Celtic Book of the Dead by Caitlin Matthews.
Subtitled A Guide for Your Voyage to the Celtic Otherworld, the book and its accompanying tarot-like cards explore the immram—a mystical journey to find the meaning of life. Matthews lays out this path by first explaining the Otherworld, which she defines as “the storehouse of archetypes that inform and shape our own phenomenal world,” a realm that is contiguous to, and overlaps, the mundane one.
Nina sensed that, on Halloween, she perhaps could reunite—even momentarily—with Ron, who died earlier this month. Like Bob and me, she misses her companion of 17 years. For example, she wouldn’t sit on the chair where she had snuggled with him—after a spat about who got there first, of course. At first, she sniffed around it; then she avoided it completely.
Cats, indeed, experience grief. Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, a breeding specialist with VCA Animal Hospitals, relies on research to bolster what she considers signs of mourning, such as decreased appetite, unexplained howling, and hiding—all behaviors we had already noticed. So I had a sit-down with Nina on the meaning of Halloween and its association with the dead.
I explained that to both ancient Celts and modern Wiccans, the holiday is known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in, rhymes with cow-in). It’s a harvest festival and as such represents the end of a cycle, the end of life, the end of a year—New Year’s Eve.
According to History.com, the Celts believed that the barrier between our world and the world that exists beyond it is thin and thus breachable during Samhain. So while they encouraged the visitation of kith and kin, they also feared dreadful forces that might also pass over: scary fairies who might kidnap the living and dead; the vile sluagh who would steal their souls; the shape-shifting and mischievous Pukah; the headless Dullahan, whose appearance was a death omen; and the invisible kelpies that would drown the unsuspecting and eat them. Carved turnips and pumpkins embedded with Samhain fires protected families from the monsters. So the Celts dressed up in costume and offered treats to discourage such evil forces.
Can you say “trick or treat”?
Even though Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century AD, the Celtic beliefs lived on both in Ireland and throughout Europe. In the ninth century, Pope Gregory usurped Samhain, transforming it into two liturgical events—All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). But the pagan roots of Samhain lived on. October 31 became All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. And in the 19th century, Irish immigrants brought their Celtic-based traditions to America.
Wiccans, who trace their practices to the ancient Celts, regard Samhain as the auspicious moment that is neither past nor present, neither of this world nor the Other. According to Eight Sabbats for Witches by Janet and Stewart Farrar, spirits of the dead may easily pass over to commune with those alive and yet unborn.
I shared with Nina two of my own very distinct celebrations of the dead.
In the late 1990s, my friend Karen and I attended a Samhain celebration in New Orleans. About a hundred people gathered after sunset to surround a priestess, a small fire, and a cauldron under a live oak in a far corner of City Park. Wearing a hooded cape, the priestess intoned some prayers and then explained the concept of the dead being able to pass from the Otherworld to ours through the thin veil of Samhain. She invited those gathered to call out the names of the dead. After a few evocations to parents, siblings, and friends, the incantations got political. “Martin Luther King,” someone called. Then the Kennedys. So I blurted out, “Mary Jo Kopechne.” Karen guffawed, but no one else seemed to notice. We were simply recognizing the presence of those who had passed over. Then the priestess blessed apples and pomegranates and passed them around for all to share.
Prior to that event, I had celebrated Le Toussaint, the Feast of All Saints, in Lacombe, Louisiana, several times. For more than 200 years, on November 1, families and friends have cleaned and decorated tombs with both candles and flowers to invite a communion with their dearly departed.
My first visitation was with my friend George. Although there was a well-marked entrance to the cemetery, we somehow missed it and ended up climbing over a fence into the graveyard. Coming in the back way, so to speak, proved to be breathtaking. Flickering votive candles hissed in the cool darkness, beckoning us to honor our own friends and family members who had died, even though they were buried a thousand miles away.
It’s no coincidence that Le Toussaint parallels both Samhain and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. A quick review of history reveals that the Celtic culture encompassed much of Europe, including Spain. So it’s not surprising that when the Spanish missionaries arrived in the New World in the 16th century, they layered Celtic-Christian observances over the Mayan and Aztec harvest rituals, resulting in Dia de los Muerto.
This was all too much for Nina, who seemingly paid no heed to the meaning of life or its relationship to death. She simply missed Ron. So I followed Dr. Buzhardt’s advice and spent a little extra time with her. I placed a favorite pillow on what was her and Ron’s snuggling chair. Over the pillow, I layered pieces of an afghan I’m working on that she likes to cuddle into. Then I lifted her gently upon this throne. She settled in. Perhaps to commune—if only briefly—with Ron.