Autumn is the season of decay. The trees shed their colourful leaves and seem to die, reminding us of the finite nature of human existence. The very land appears to die in preparation for winter. It is then no surprise that we reflect on the somber tone of the season by remembering those we have lost. Some cultures venerate their dead while others perform rituals to banish the spirits of the vengeful fallen. Lavish festivals are thrown and simple feasts performed the word over. Here in Canada, the most obvious, and perhaps least sacred of the these festivals is Halloween. In the truly unique, secular nature of North American culture, it is mostly an excuse to spend money and to strip away as much as possible from the ancestral festivals that it is an amalgam of. Festivals like the Roman Lemuria, Celtic Samhain, and the Christian All-Hallows-Eve. Those festivals are now largely forgotten. I am not here to claim that my chosen festival is superior, or to make the ever so tired argument over whose spiritually ripped off whom. Instead, I want to briefly examine how the different religious and social values of our ancestors relate and to share an opinion on respecting them.
Problems invariably arise when any two religions are held against each other. In the Pagan community, there is a lot of backlash against organized religions like Christianity and Judaism. Many of us come from religious backgrounds other than our chosen path. As a practicing Pagan, I embrace the autumn season as a time to reflect on and honour my ancestors. As the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father however, I believe that my ancestors should be honoured in a manner which they would find meaningful. I was raised Jewish, bar mitzvah and all. I still celebrate several Jewish festivals religiously, particularly those which are rooted in the heritage of my people, but in a manner which allows me to practice my own beliefs. Although it is no longer my religion of practice, Judaism is a part of me. Not only is it in my blood, but it has entered into my soul as well. It can be no different for my ancestors.
Many modern pagans celebrate the sabbat of Saimhain as part of the wheel of the year. For some, this may include a seance or dumb supper where food is set for the spirits of the dead and the meal eaten in silence. A dumb supper is a lovely and beautiful ritual, but not one which I feel entirely comfortable with, let alone a seance. I doubt very much that my Jewish grandparents would have found that to be an honour. I realize however, that this is only one way of performing a dumb supper and that many do not view the ritual that way at all. The ritual can easily be modified to become more of a prayer, a silent vigil for the dead, a reverent way to remember the dead of any culture. Calling on their spirits, not always so. This Samhain, I do intend to pray for and remember both my Jewish and Christian ancestors, but in a manner which is true to their memory and that they would have found respectful.
It is entirely possible to pray in your own religious way for someone who practices another religion in a way which respects their beliefs. I have thought long over how to best do this. Some would argue that it would be sacrilegious to do so while others would argue that the form of the prayer matters not. Their is a good deal to be said about both arguments here. Essentially, this becomes a matter of religious ethics which apply whether the subject of the prayer is alive or has passed on. The conclusion which I intend to follow is the balance which works for me. As long as the object of the prayer does not conflict with the beliefs of the subject, then the form need not be considered.
Each individual is free to practice whichever religion or spirituality calls to them. That said, we must all respect the practices of others. It is important to remember our heritage the way it was, not in the way we are and it is important to celebrate the lives of our loved ones. So whether you participate in any holiday of the dead this year or whether you simply turn off all your lights in hope of hiding from the troops of trick-or-treaters, try to remember those who came before you. Try to honour their memory in some small way that is meaningful for you both.