Who takes the time to talk to children about death?

An opinion from Marthe Mahieu, former principal of a secondary school

Halloween… Between the start of the school year and Saint-Nicolas, the opportunity to sell expensive bric-a-brac of horrors that have become unavoidable is opportunely inserted in supermarkets: skeletons, witches and cobwebs surround the sneering pumpkins of all sizes. Some deplore the abandonment of our old customs of Toussaint. But why have these rituals from America spread to our Latin countries? Only commercial phenomenon? It may be said quickly. To understand, you have to go back to the origins and discover that Halloween and Toussaint actually have the same deep meaning and both originate from Ireland.

Between the visible and the invisible

Among the ancient Gaels, since the dawn of time, the New Year was celebrated on the first of November, during the great feast of Samhain. The night of October 31 was indeed very dark, all fires were extinguished, it was the night when the dead were allowed to leave Sidh, their underground domain, to return to the living. Returned especially those who had died during the year, or whom death had surprised: murdered, drowned, injured. These had not yet found their place and wandered like “souls in pain”. They came to seek help from their relatives. Little reassured, the living stayed at home that evening, drinking mead after placing a lighted lantern and a little food on the threshold of their house for the continuation of the journey of their loved ones in the afterlife.

In the 5th century, the Irish converted massively to Christianity, but continued to celebrate Samain and to believe in ghosts. Saint Patrick, who had evangelized them, knew his flock well. Rather than prohibit these pagan rites, he transformed them into All Saints’ Day, the feast of the communion of saints. It was a skilful way of Christianizing the immemorial link that unites the visible to the invisible, the world of the dead to that of the living. He authorized the customs of the vigil, with its folk outbursts, its fires lit at dawn, and of course its merry drinking. The Church tolerated, as long as everyone met the next day at All Saints’ Mass, where they prayed for all those, known or unknown, who had joined the Kingdom of God. They were also asked to intercede for the living, which, in short, pursued the same idea of ​​exchanges with the dead as the ancient Celtic religion.

The Advent of the Day of the Dead

Irish monks were great travelers and founders of abbeys. All Saints Day spread rapidly in Europe. The Pope confirmed it in 607. It was the Abbot of Cluny who doubled it in 998 with a Day of the Dead on November 2, and created a special liturgy of prayer for the faithful deceased. From 1050, this celebration was customary throughout France. The custom of placing flowers on graves dates from this period.

It was in the puritan and troubled Scotland of the 18th century that young people began to parody ghosts by organizing grotesque or frightening processions and holding passers-by to ransom on the evening of October 31.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish, driven by famine, emigrated en masse to America, taking with them their customs. It was then that the name Halloween was born, a dialectal contraction of All (saints) evening, in other words “All Saints’ Eve”. Americans of all origins adopted it with enthusiasm and created the famous Jack O’Lantern, a hollowed-out pumpkin with an infernal grin and the quivering glow of a wandering soul.

Halloween and Toussaint, far from opposing each other, are twin celebrations, which have converged and competed for a very long time. If Halloween – some are offended – can be considered as a recent recuperation of Toussaint, it was first, fifteen centuries ago, Toussaint who recuperated Samain. And if this custom, like a boomerang, came back to us recently via America, its roots and its long life are European, Celtic obviously rather than Mediterranean.

A meaning that has been lost

But why, at the start of the 21st century, is Europe so enthusiastic about a folklore that has hitherto remained across the Atlantic? Internet, global communication, the success of American television series have undoubtedly contributed to this. The funny, playful and spectacular aspect of Halloween, more seductive than silent visits to the cemetery, arms laden with chrysanthemums, undoubtedly corresponds better to our dominant culture of entertainment. But perhaps we can also see something deeper there: a desire to ward off the death threats that hover in the four corners of the planet, to believe in the invisible, to escape materialism and utilitarianism. dishes. A sort of parodic exorcism of the “horrors” whose images surround us from all sides.

The problem with Halloween is not that it comes from America, or that it’s horrible, or that it supplants the good old All Saints. The real problem is that those who practice it have themselves lost their sense of it. Three young boys rang my doorbell one evening on October 31, decked out in grimacing masks and holding out baskets already filled with a few treats. I greeted them ceremoniously: “Visitors from beyond, what do you ask for?” Taken aback, they lifted their masks, looked at me with concern, then ran away, without a word, giggling nervously.

Who takes the time to talk intelligently to children about death, the afterlife, the invisible, intercession? Do we tell them the long history of Halloween? Are they taught to distinguish the Christian vision of eternal life from stories of ghosts or reincarnation? They often have only commercial junk at their disposal, or snippets of confused mythologies gleaned from comic books, science fiction series, gothic video games.

Rather than fighting Halloween or despising it in the name of a humanistic or Christian culture, can we not exploit it as an opportunity to understand the long search pursued by humans of all cultures to make sense of death and the other world ?

We would love to give thanks to the author of this short article for this incredible material

Who takes the time to talk to children about death?

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