Rites of Passage

The willow in the backyard has lost all but a few leaves right at the top of its branches and looks as if it has a flat-top haircut. It’s young, only about five years old, hasn’t yet learned how age will droop the upright stance and bend branches to the ground. I like the old, established willows around town, their branch tips sweeping the ground and offering hiding places for children and animals, but I like this young one, too, this one just establishing itself in the world.

The Rites of Passage come to all of us. 

The days are getting shorter here in this Northern Hemisphere. I’ve pulled my red fleece shawl out of summer storage. October’s hard blue sky foretells a deeper season. The last of the harvest is being gathered in, whether it’s the last of the hard, green tomatoes by hand, or the blood-red milo by the combine, fall has deepened its hold on us all and it’s time to gather in.

October has traditionally been a season of celebrations: in Greece, the people celebrate the Festival of Demeter, Goddess of Harvest, before she withdraws her favors from the earth as she mourns Persephone’s return to the underworld. October is also the Jewish festival of Sukkot, originally a wine festival to honor the Queen of Heaven. In the church, there’s All Saints/All Souls; and for children – or the child in all of us – there’s Halloween. In the ancient Celtic world, its name Samhain.

When I lived in Mexico, the days of this week were important. Houses were cleaned, flowers gathered. The markets would have tables and shelves filled with sugar skulls and dancing skeletons. Other stalls were heaped with marigolds and mums. On the sugar skulls, paper names pasted their foreheads: Miguel, Pablo, Lupe. The Days of the Dead were coming and almost everyone participated in some way. Some villages have a three-day festival with music and carnival stands, food, and flowers. I’d walk through small country cemeteries and families would be having supper on the graves after spending the day decorating them with flower petals. Some of the designs were quite intricate and beautiful. Candles flickered and the light shone on the face of an old woman holding a sleeping boy’s head in her lap, his legs splayed out across the grave as his bed.

Families build ofrendas, a table of offering, in their homes with pictures of loved ones, flowers, food, tequila, special treats. I always appreciated the sense of acceptance Mexicans had with death. It was as much a part of life as the celebrations, the weddings, the dances, the birth of babies. Death was accepted as a part of the cycle of living and all rites of passage honored and celebrated.

We also lived in New Mexico where the Days of the Dead were celebrated, so we’ve always had an offrenda at our church service of All Saints/All Souls. We invite the community to bring mementos of loved ones, flowers, a favorite food if they wish, bread. We set up the table in front of the altar and we honor those who have passed before us. Remembering and Celebrating the rites of passage that are with us all all the time but especially honored at this time of year. If you wish, it’s easy to have one of these ofrendas in your own home for your own contemplation and meditation.

How do you celebrate your rites of passage? Do you take time to welcome and celebrate the changing season and the change in weather or do you needlessly mourn the passing of the year? Yes, it will get cold. But summer will come again.

Birth and death repeating in an ever-changing cycle of renewal.