Making Your Own Legacy Altar
Here in the United States, Halloween is synonymous with PJ Masks costumes and candy, but what if we took this holiday as an opportunity to talk with our kids about those people who have come before us?
The roots of Halloween can be found in a variety of holidays that have evolved for centuries. This year, I want to take a look at the origins of the holiday and see how we can make it a memorable family experience rather than just a sugar fest.
It is fascinating to see how many of the ancient traditions of this festival revolved around honoring the dead, remembering loved ones, and connecting with those who have passed.
In order to understand why we think this holiday is the perfect time for a family history lesson with the kids, let’s take a look real quick at a few of the ancient traditions that helped make Halloween what it is today.
Samhain - The Autumn Fire Festival
The origins of what we today call Halloween can be traced to Samhain, a celtic fire festival. After the work of the harvest was complete, this three day festival led by Druid Priests was meant to ward off spirits from the other world.
Celebrants of this festival believe that the barriers between the physical and spiritual world would be weakened during this time, allowing increased interactions between spirits and humans.
My grandma when she was a toddler. :)
Feralia - Romans Honor the Dead
It’s worth noting that when the Romans began taking over the Celtic regions, they celebrated Parentalia and Feralia, days when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead, although these took place in February.
All Saints Day - How it Became “Halloween”
All Saints Day began as All Martyrs Day, established by Pope Boniface IV. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the holiday from May 13 to November 1, which is still celebrated today in the Catholic Church as a major Holiday with kids marching to “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Dia de los Muertos
Amazingly, while the now-Europeans were evolving this ever-changing tradition, the Aztecs and other peoples in pre-columbian meso-america were on to something similar. Day of the dead does not have any ties to Halloween, however it’s amazing to see how the two have parallel themes and intentions.
Those who celebrate the day of the dead believe that on this day, the veil between the spirit world and the physical world is opened and the spirits on those who have passed return to the physical world for a feast.
And so, families prepare an ofrenda: an offering of loved ones’ favorite food and drink. The spirits are treated as honored guests and the people prepare accordingly. People who celebrate dia de los muertos often use the holiday as a time to remember loved ones and share memories of those who are gone.
Avoiding Cultural Appropriation
I absolutely loved studying the origins of these holidays and I think I’m not the only one who sometimes gets so excited and wants to try these traditions out myself. However I also took my time with deciding how we could incorporate these traditions into our home in a sensitive way.
Cultural Appropriation is when members of a majority group take and use elements of a minority culture in a stereotypical and inauthentic way.
These are honored traditions. We don’t want to make an ofrenda on a whim and decorate sugar skulls just for fun unless we are actually honoring the belief that the spirits of our ancestors will be visiting us.
So, how do we actually add more meaning to Halloween?
The Legacy Altar
No matter what culture we study, we see the theme of honoring the dead stand out among these traditions. So let’s use this as an opportunity to do just that! Here’s how you can make your own legacy altar this Halloween.
Pick a Place in Your Home to Display It
Decide where in your home you would like to put the altar. This could be a special table you set up, on or around the fireplace, on the mantel, or anywhere else that won’t be dusturbed. I chose this little shelf in my house.
Make it a multi-generational project
Before getting your kids involved, talk to the elders in your family. Find photos of their relatives and have conversations with them about who is who. Set a coffee date with your parents or grandparents and ask them about their family. Encourage them to share stories of their memories of their siblings and parents.
Build the Altar
Once you have spent time learning about your family, get the kids involved. Print pictures of your family member, place them in frames and set them up however you like. Let the kids be part of the process! Maybe they can decorate and label picture frames or decide where each photo should be placed.
Take Time to Remember
Throughout October and November, take time to sit with the kids and look at their creation. Talk about who is in the photos. What lessons can we learn from them? What do you remember about them? Why are they important to you and your family?
How to talk to your kids about those who passed:
For resources on how to talk to your kids about death, I highly recommend this article from Child Development Info.