An Ancestor Shrine
When it comes to decorating our homes this time of year, our thoughts often turn to pumpkins, black cats and fake cobwebs. I enjoy decorating for Halloween, but also feel a call to observe the deeper meaning of the holiday.
The feast of Halloween originated with the festival of Samhain (sow’un), the Celtic new year, in which the veil between the worlds was said to be thinner. Samhain Eve was an opportune time to contact the spirit world, often through scrying, that is, seeking a vision in a mirror or a bowl of water. It was also a night to honor those friends and relatives who had passed onto the next world themselves. For this reason, I like to include a shrine to my own ancestors among my Halloween decorations.
My shrine is a small table that sits in my living room, near the piano that belonged to my great-grandmother. I cover the table with a silk cloth, and then lay out photos of my grandparents, great-grandparents and any friends or family members who have passed on. Other ideas for decorating your shrine might include a copy of your family tree, or favorite items that remind you of your loved ones. I include a brooch that my Grandma Mary gave to me when I was a little girl, a pen my grandfather used and an offshoot of an asparagus fern plant that sprouted from one at my grandmother Anna Mae’s house. I also decorate my shrine with candles and flowers, especially marigolds, considered the flowers of the dead in Mexican culture.
Each night in late October, before going to bed, I light the candles and spend a quiet moment thinking of my family members, those I knew and those whom I never had a chance to know. I thank them for all of their hard work and dedication, the struggles many of them underwent to come to America, to raise their children and provide for their families. My great-grandparents were ethnic German refugees who fled the steppes of Russia just before World War I and settled on a farm in eastern Colorado. One of their sons married my Irish grandmother Anna Mae, whose own mother had sold flowers on street corners in Denver when she was only twelve years old. My Grandma Mary, on the other hand, grew up in an Oklahoma orphanage where her Hungarian immigrant mother worked as a seamstress, and she lived through the Dust Bowl. Thinking of their struggles, and their resilience, I honor them for all that they sacrificed, and for how they influenced who I am today.
For me, this moment with my memories and my gratitude is a way of tying into the cycle and continuity of life, and of dealing with some of the emotions that the falling leaves and grayer skies may inevitably bring forth. This shrine also provides a wonderful opportunity to talk to my own children about my grandparents and other family members they never had a chance to meet.
I also like to honor my relatives by making old family recipes or favorite foods from our traditions. These might include corned beef and cabbage in honor of my Irish grandmother, or potato dumplings in remembrance of my German-Russian great-grandmother. One year I even undertook a homemade pumpkin pie, even making the pie crust from scratch as my Grandma Mary used to do. Food is a wonderful way to share memories and carry on traditions, and as the smells fill the house I can almost imagine I will find my own grandmother at work in the kitchen, telling stories and giving treats to the children.
Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.
All photos by Erin Fossett.