Autumn ushers in an array of cultural and religious celebrations in our historic town

Moments in Time By Jan Siegel
‘Moments in Time’ by Jan Siegel

By Jan Siegel

The month of October is the perfect time to reflect on how the Catholic Church and ancient cultures were able to meld into one holiday. Keeping ancient traditions alive was the way the missionaries were able to attract followers into the new faith. As a result, 2000 years later we are still celebrating the traditions of the past.

When Catholic missionaries first arrived in what is now Britain and Ireland, the predominant tribes were Celtic. Their priests were called Druids. One of their four major holidays was the ritual of Samhain, a tribute to the God Baal or the devil. This festival was a celebration of death.  The celebrations took place on what is now Nov. 1.

The Celts were a very religious people. It was Pope Gregory in 601 A.D. who cleverly decided to incorporate the sacred festival of Samhain into the festival of All Saints Day—a day of celebration and prayer to dead saints—in order to attract the religious Celts to Christianity. The Catholic holiday was also known as All Hallows Day. The word “hallow” was often interchanged in the early church for saint or God the Father, as in the Lord’s Prayer, which starts out with, “Hallowed be thy name.” In 835, Pope Gregory IV decreed All Saints Day as a sacred “day of obligation,” which means that Catholics are required to attend Mass. This made the eve of All Hollows Day an important time as well. Through the centuries, All Hollows Eve became Halloween.

One interesting part of the Celtic Samain ritual that has been included in Halloween celebrations today is the candle in the carved pumpkin. In Celtic times, a human skull would have been used.  The Celts believed that one’s soul lived in the head, so in celebrating the death of relatives, keeping a light in the skull kept the soul alive. The tradition of the pumpkin has many versions, but one story surrounds a man named Jack who, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil—hence the carved “jack-o’-lantern” with a candle in it.

When the missionaries landed in Mexico, they encountered a celebration for honoring the dead.

For over 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead, presided over Aztec harvest festivals.

According to Mexican tradition, one dies three different kinds of death. The first is when the body stops functioning. The second kind of death is when the body is returned to the earth in burial. The third type of death is when there is no one left alive to remember the person. Even very poor families construct altars in the home to encourage the spirit of their ancestors to return each year. An altar can also be erected at the grave site of a departed relative. This is a happy occasion. The altar usually includes photographs, flowers, candles, favorite foods, and personal items.

During the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—sugar skulls are also placed on the altars. Sugar is not indigenous to Mexico. It was brought by the first explorers who discovered that the soil in Mexico was ideal for growing sugar. When the missionaries arrived, it was hard for the Mexicans to afford the European-style church decorations. But sugar was abundant and it was cheap. Clay molded sugar figures started to appear. It was not long before they too, became part of the Day of the Dead festivities. The skull art represents the departed soul in folk art style. There are many professional sugar skull makers, but homemade ones are popular as well.

The church was never able to get the people of Mexico to abandon these family ceremonies. Instead, the Day of the Dead was incorporated into All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The spirit lives on in the traditions of both the ancient religions and the church.

In San Juan Capistrano, you can spend ‘Moments in Time’ and reflect upon the traditions of the many cultures that we have in our community. This October, you can experience the Ghost Walk sponsored by the Historical Society on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28-29, along historic Los Rios Street. Reservations are a must for this event by calling the Historical Society at 949.493.8444.

You can also enjoy the tortilla art of Joe Bravo now through Nov. 28 in the La Sala auditorium at the San Juan Capistrano Library. On Saturday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m., Bravo will conduct a workshop on tortilla art. Reservations are needed for this event as well.

On Nov. 5 at 2 p.m., there will be a sugar skulls demonstration followed by Aztec dancers and mariachis at the library. This event is free to the public. Also, from Oct. 29 to Nov. 8, Day of the Dead altars will be on display at the library. This year, the library has chosen “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez as their book altar. For more information on all the library events, call 949.493.1752.

And, of course, if you are Catholic, don’t forget to go to Mass on Nov. 1.

Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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