Beneath the garish ghosts, goblins, skeletons and neon-green undead of the drugstore version of Halloween is a deeper current of spiritual observance. Around the world, the halfway point between the fall equinox and winter solstice has been celebrated as a time when it's possible to communicate with the already departed.
Some cultures are smart enough to acknowledge the potent force exerted by those who've come before, to send blessings, offer forgiveness and be touched by whatever wisdom the ancestors have to give.
Today, we might call the power of previous generations genetics or the psychosocial environment of the family.
But it's still there, something that has to be reckoned with.
Halloween, not Christmas, may be the best time of year, then, to crack open the family photo albums, to -- yes -- visit family graves, resolve old grievances against those in your life who've died and reflect on the nature of the inheritance you've been left.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"My training in China taught me that we're connected to seven generations behind us and seven generations in front of us. Each one of us has the responsibility to heal the ancestors through ourselves. In doing that we bring a hope of change to the next generation. Forgiveness is very important to allow an (abusive) ancestor to rest in peace. Part of the Day of the Dead is to forgive. At the grave, you talk to the ancestors and bring an offering of food. Be as honest as you can. People will praise an ancestor, forgetting how hard that relationship was."
MAGDALENA JARA, acupuncturist
"Many times my clients have gotten support in words and images from loved ones who have passed on, in a way that has helped them heal very difficult problems. Often it isn't until they receive that support and connection from this loved one that they're able to move on. People can connect to their ancestors in imagination. When they wish them well or wish healing, I've seen evidence that that can create freedom both in the person and in the ancestors."
LARRY NUSBAUM, MD, psychotherapist
"History matters, and our ancestors are not just our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Our ancestors are also the common ancestor that led to most multicellular life on this planet. One of the genes that controls development of the wing in fruit flies has been conserved all the way to humans and is involved in skin cancer. I can give you lots of other examples. For biologists, one of the most beautiful things has been to see this conservation of function across all living things on this planet and how important that is for understanding our humanity.'
ALAN BERNSTEIN, PhD, molecular geneticist, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
"Choosing ancestors is a valid possibility for people who either have no family they know of or no record of their ancestors. They can choose to honour certain people as aspects of self they wish to connect with. It's really about honouring the continuum of life. You could achieve this by realizing you are an ancestor of tomorrow. We're all connected to each other -- everything that moves through you will eventually move through me, including death. So you're recognizing life by acknowledging the sacredness of death."
ISIS, neo-pagan artist, musician
"For some adoptees, who their parents are is a burning issue. If they can't find their family they do things that link them with what they know of their past. At around the age of seven or eight, some kids go through a disturbing time -- they understand that if somebody chose you, somebody had to give you away.'
NANCY COHEN, psychologist, professor at U of T in the department of psychiatry and at OISE/UT