Today is All Souls’ Day.
It’s easy to forget this holiday exists. At the stores, the Halloween costumes have already been replaced with Christmas decorations, and the grocery stores are trying to wedge Thanksgiving fare in between October and December.
Historically, Halloween is the day we pray for protection from evil. All Saints’ Day–November 1–is the day we celebrate those in heaven. All Souls’ Day–November 2–is the day we pray for the dead.
When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. They lived only a couple of miles from my childhood home, and we saw them every few days, which means we were there to witness the routines of daily living.
My Croatian Catholic grandparents brought with them many of the Old-World rituals. Soup before every meal. Baking povitica every weekend. Special rituals like sprouting wheat seeds at Christmas.
It just so happened that I found myself at my grandparents’ house on November 2 one year. I remember walking into my grandmothers’ kitchen and finding a pie pan full of glowing white candles.
“What are the candles for?” I asked.
“Today we light candles for our family and friends who have died,” she said. And she pointed to each candle and told me who it was for. Her mother. Her father. Her grandmother. Her first husband. And on and on.
I was in awe of so many glowing candles on something other than a birthday cake.
“I don’t have anyone to light a candle for,” I said. Not really comprehending what those candles really meant, I was disappointed not to have any of my own to light.
“That means that everyone who matters to you is still here,” she said. “One day, though, you’ll have candles to light.”
I still remember when my brother called me in March of 2002 to tell me that my cousin was killed in a car wreck. It was the first time someone who truly mattered–a cousin we’d grown up with–was gone.
“We’re lucky, you know,” my brother told me before the funeral. “Somehow, we made it until now before anyone in our close circle of friends and family died.”
I was twenty-six.
And then it began.
The Big Deaths. The ones that truly alter the flow of your life. The ones that make you realize that generations are passing, that things will never be as they were. That there will come a time when you realize people you loved have been gone from your life longer than they were in your life, even though some part of you thought they would always be there.
And now I understand why my grandmother lights candles. It is more than a prayer for their souls. It is a day to remember the people who touched our lives and to celebrate how they shaped us.
Today, I pulled out my own pie pan and found myself filling it with candles.
My husband and I light candles for my cousin, my mother, my paternal grandmother, my mother-in-law, my husband’s four grandparents, my husband’s uncle, a candle for all of our pets, and one more candle for everyone else who touched our lives and has since passed on.
After lighting her own candles and offering prayers and reflection, my grandmother went on with her day. Cooking. Cleaning. Folding laundry. And the candles were allowed to burn. Because those who touch our lives are always a part of us, always glowing in the background, even when we aren’t thinking about them at all.
Beautifully Written – something everyone should read – and hopefully they will think about the true meaning of these days.
It also makes me wonder – why has society turned so many of our religious holidays into a reason to party into forgetfulness when we should use them as a day to be very focused and mindful of the real meaning of the days.
Good question, Tami. It seems like the holidays that are most visible to us are the ones with great commercial value, and for that reason, they tend to overwhelm us. In the 1800s, Christmas day was commemorated, but it was really just a day. Stores were open, people worked, but they had Christmas dinner. My own family was baffled by the Christmas decorations in people’s homes before December 24, because in the Old Country, you celebrated the Christmas season from Christmas through Epiphany. On the other hand, Memorial Day/Decoration Day was an extremely important holiday in the U.S., and now most people see it as just the kick-off to summer festivities. I wonder if we aren’t so overwhelmed by the big holidays, that we just don’t have energy to engage in the other holidays or commemorations, religious or otherwise.
I loved Souls Day & Grandma. I too have heard of it. How beautiful. Just such a warm delightful story. Here’s to Grandma!
Diana, this is so beautiful. It touched me so much. It made me cry, thinking of family and friends we have lost. But your’re right, we need to remember they are always with us.
Diana, thanks for writing of your poignant tradition of candles on All Souls Day. It comforts me to think of your grandmother putting thought, prayer and attention to the memorial and then going about the tasks of the day. A lesson for life.