Presentation by Christiana Gianetta on November 5, 2017

How We Celebrate All Saints’ Day Around the World

Death is a universal human experience.  As much as we may want to, we cannot cheat death.  It’s not that, historically we haven’t tried.  Humans have been and probably will continue to be, obsessed with the idea of cheating death.  We have the Fountain of Youth, first appearing in writings by Herodotus in the 5th century, made famous perhaps by the myth of Juan Ponce de Leon.  A Spanish explorer in 1513 who landed in Florida, thought to have been looking for the Fountain of Youth.  There’s also the mythical potion, the Elixir of Life.  People from China, India, to France have tried to concoct this potion for a chance at everlasting life.

To keep with the theme of recently celebrated Halloween, a lot of costumes, horror movie tropes and fiction is based on the idea of the living dead, like zombies, or people who ended up unable to die like vampires.  We’re a little obsessed with the idea of living forever, but in fiction it almost never works out.  To fuel the money-making industry of the horror genre a common theme for cheating death is that the blessing becomes a curse.  Almost every story that has this theme, comes up that it is better to die, than to live on Earth forever.

Now if I wanted to be cheeky, I could say that Christians have already figured out how to cheat death.  As believers, we recognize that while our bodies may die, our souls join God up in heaven and through coming together in Communion through the sacrifice of Jesus, past and present becomes one.  We celebrate Jesus’s sacrifice annually with Easter and every Sunday by remembering his life through the gospel each week.  For All Saints, we take time to celebrate the lives of those who passed before us.

Death is something that unifies us and all around the world people are remembering and celebrating their loved ones.  Christians have been celebrating All Saints November 1st since Pope Gregory the Third in the 700s.  He wanted to celebrate all the holy apostles, saints, martyrs and confessors.  This date lands the same time as the Celtic holiday of Samhain, whose harvest festival traditions also speak about this as a time where spirits and fairies would move in between realms.  Communities had their own way of handling death and how souls came back.  The Anglican community has members in over 165 countries.  While in America we may take our families to the graves of the deceased, bring flowers or other small decorations, every country has a different way of celebrating.

  • -In Mexico we have Dia de los Muertos, which is the Day of the Dead. It’s a time where entire family and friends go the graveyards to honor the dead.  It’s one large lively festival, which lots of food.  Tombs and gravestones are cleaned, repaired and decorated with brightly colored figurines, flowers and personal altars.  This is also the time where the two worlds, of the living and of the dead are most passable.
  • -Similarly in Eastern Europe, specifically in Poland they celebrate Zaduszki. In Poland people decorate their graves, most significant is the use of candles that gives graveyards an elegant glow to them.  Just like in Mexico it is believed that the dead will revisit tonight, so Polish families will sometimes leave a bench near their fireplace.  They leave water, a comb and soap so that the dead can wash up before entering.
  • -In France they celebrate Toussaint or Tous Les Saints. Families will visit graves together in a more respectful, quiet atmosphere to clean and honor their dead.  They place chrysanthemums on the grave stones.  Which means it would be considered a little odd to give one in any other circumstances.  Chrysanthemums are only for dead, to be used during this day and for funerals, as they represent immortality, as the flower itself is rather hearty.

Unifying All Saints Day through our belief that there is salvation, many Christians all over the world attend special church services this year.  Although deaths are commonly considered very sad, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  ” With faith, there is no fear, only blessings.  All Saints Day is a reminder of this.   There’s an attitude that this is a time for reflection for those who passed away.   But since death isn’t only for Christians, many other cultures have traditions of honoring their dead that have similarities to our own traditions, but still unique in their own way.

  • -In Japan people celebrate Obon, a Japanese Buddhist and cultural festival. Starting in mid-August there are giant bonfires in the hills surrounding Kyoto.  Fires are to help guide the spirits back.  There dances meant to welcome them home and people are send thousands of floating paper lanterns down rivers to the ocean to honor their dead.
  • -In China, there is the Hungry Ghost Festival, where people place food on altars to appease hungry spirits. It’s also a time to make offerings, they burn fake money, and cut out of cars, ipad and watches to be enjoyed by their ancestors in the afterlife.  It’s a time to be weary, but festive.
  • -In Nepal they have a lighthearted way of celebrating the dead, a way to help people accept death as a reality. It’s called Gaijatra, Festival of Cows.  According to history, a King once lost a son, when his wife grew grief stricken, he held a carnival for everyone who had a family member who died.  Since everyone turned up, with a festive attitude, it showed to his wife that everybody had someone who died in their family.

While many cultures have, continue to and will always celebrate their faiths in different ways.  Just as Samhain had the influence in our holiday now, traditions will continue to influence the way they practice their faith.  Death is something that we will all have to deal with, and with the example just said, we can now understand that many different cultures have come up with different and similar ways of doing so.  A bit similarity is that each feast or holiday is meant to be comforting.  That is probably why when Christians celebrate All Saints day that they don’t completely strip their cultural traditions.

Around the world, people are tied together by faith, faith in the Lord, but also faith that somehow, death is not truly the end.  Why do we choose to be Christians? If people throughout history, in every country had a way to comfort and come to terms with it, why did we choose this way? To me, Christianity empowers.  This may be the Lutheran in me, but our actions, although guided by Christ, will not ever work against us.  There is no divine scale or checklist to complete for salvation.  It says so in Mark, we do not have to be rich, always happy, or confident to receive the Blessings.  Perfection isn’t obtained in life, only in death.  While we’re here on Earth we should strive in our means to be the best people we can, but because we want to be.  To do something out of fear for one’s self seems to be selfish.  It’s not truly a gift if the end game is to save one’s self.  Instead, we should give freely, without worry about obtaining salvation.  A God who is most merciful, who sent his only son to die for us, would want to see that selflessness of love for one another, in our actions.

Although there are still plenty of mysteries to explore and be curious about.  We can find comfort in knowing we will not be the first or the last to come together in communion.  Thank you.

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