Standing behind each of us is a long line of ancestors who continue to love and guide us. We New Orleanians know this. We have an uneasy feeling that we wouldn’t be here at all without that love and guidance. We feel it in our bones. We celebrate it in personal and public ways even though—if you are like me—this spirit stuff doesn’t fit neatly into a religious world view or the faith in magic and superstition that I hold at arm’s length.
But let’s not leave Halloween just to the children. We can all get into it one way or another. Let’s not pretend that what’s scary and exciting for children—tricks and candy and masks—covers what is scary and exciting for us adults: death and sex.
This year, consider extending Halloween to be more in tune with the Mexico’s Day of the Dead. During that famous celebration—wonderfully evoked in the Pixar hit animation “Coco”—it is said the Dead come back to visit the Living, and the veil separating the Living and the Dead is at its most permeable.
Day of the Dead is actually a multi-day festival that begins October 31 and culminates in all-night vigils that begin November 1 and end November 2. When the Dead come back, the children arrive first, followed by familiar adults and finally on the day after the all-night vigils, the unremembered Dead.
In Mexico, elaborate displays transform graves into altars covered with marigolds. Thousands of candles illuminate the path between worlds and give warmth to the returning Dead. Tables are set up with food for the Dead in cemeteries, and families picnic all night long on the graves of their loved ones.
On Thursday, November 1, from 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m., the New Orleans Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Avenue, will host a free ceremony and celebration for the Dead and for Gede.
Gede is a Haitian Vodou Lwa who transforms death from a menacing and fearful reaper into a comically grotesque equalizer. The Lwa are eternally ever-present spirits, once living people who passed through the initiation of death.
Gede is a trickster who stands at the crossroads between life and death. Abandon your posturing if you want to avoid being the brunt of his ridicule. Cocky, crude, and often embarrassing, Gede is the patron of death, sex, and regeneration. He is also the patron of young children and, in life-or-death situations, a great healer. His colors are purple, black and white, and he characteristically wears a top hat and tails or a grave-digger’s garb and sunglasses—often with only one lens—either because he sees between worlds or in reference to his “one-eyed snake” or penis.
The New Orleans-based Vodou society, La Source Ancienne Ounfo, will transform the Healing Center on November 1 with 14 spectacular inter-faith altars, drumming, dancing, and a potluck supper. Wear white, purple, or black. Bring offerings for Gede or for your ancestors. Bring a supper dish to share. And come with heart and mind open to whatever you might receive.
Manbo Asogwe (high priestess) Sallie Ann Glassman says that Vodou is “a vibrant, beautiful, and ecstatic religion that is free from dogma, guilt, or coercion.” I can sense the immediacy of the divine any time I am witness to one of her ceremonies.
I’ll never forget the time my dear friend Royce Osborn, recently deceased, seemed to turn into Gede at one of these ceremonies on a bridge over Bayou St. John while people were getting their hair washed by Sallie Ann. Or the time lightning struck Royce and knocked him down. Or his Skull and Bone Gang dancing and drumming for him as he lay dying, serene and beautiful, his righteous anger transformed.
Me, I’m more comfortable at Trinity Episcopal Church. My religion allows me to ingest (“in jest,” Gede made me type the first time) the spirit in small, round, white, completely manageable wafers that we call Communion. The Spirit has never even threatened to overwhelm my ego and make me do strange things. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t miss the chance on November 1 to watch the Spirit behave in a way it never does at Trinity.
I’ll honor the myriad ways the Divine instructs us to give it our attention. I will especially honor and remember my friend Royce, his voice, his integrity, his wisdom, and his openness to the spirit world in whatever way it presents itself to him. Royce’s favorite holiday was Halloween. If the veil really is that thin, I wouldn’t put it past him to sneak back in and play.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist and author of “Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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