The veils are thin. The days are shorter. The nights lengthen. This is the time to delve into the unconscious and the realm of the underworld. For many Pagans, Heathens, and Polytheists, the days around the end of October and the beginning of November are sacred times for remembering the dead, the ancestors, and the honored ancients. We are accustomed to nocturnal visits from our deceased loved ones, mentors from the dead who leave messages or speak with those who might not see or understand these communications during other parts of the year. Overall, this is a common time to check in with the ancestors both literally and figuratively.
Literally, to check in means to let the ancestors know that we are here. We may call upon them for aid and assistance, but how often do we seek them out to let them know that we are fully present in our remembrance of them as our revered ancestors? When we speak of them in ritual or connect with them during this time of the thinning veil, how often do we pause to give an update to our ancestors about what is going on in our everyday lives, or what has happened since they walked the earth?
In a society that prizes speed, efficiency, and overwork, this time of the year is precious for giving time to connect with our ancestors. We slow down, and as we do, we can share with our extended family of ancients.
Figuratively, when we have spent time away from friends and loved ones, to check in means to update them. This is more than just saying, “I made it here safely,” more than a quick text. It’s telling our loved ones what is going on in our lives, how we are really doing, beyond the mask we show the world, and how we are feeling.
When the leaves fall, the brisk winds rise, and the temperatures begin their descent towards winter’s inevitability, I confess that I find myself drawing near to those who have crossed beyond. I think of family members who have been on my mind, be they recently deceased, or gone for decades. I tend more to my ancestor altar, and I invite my loved ones into my life. There is something about the cold that makes me want to warm up by a fire, sip a mug of hot tea, and recall good times with my loved ones.
My mother and I enjoyed nights of watching old movies on Turner Classic, arguing over how many episodes of House Hunters could play before she got fed up, and chuckling over cute animal specials that made it to TV. Even though she has been gone for a few years now, I miss sharing with her the latest nature special on the not-quite-as-endangered pandas, or looking out the window at the wild turkeys that stop traffic as they stroll across the street from our yard to the neighbor’s house.
My father loved driving on the open road under clear blue skies with a full tank of gas, singing show tunes from musicals, and stopping in gas stations for lottery tickets. I miss our road trips, the time we shared in the library, and making biscuits from scratch in the kitchen. At this time of year, I feel close to him whenever I am driving, singing at the top of my lungs with the wind blowing the leaves around the car. While I have a picture of my father on the ancestor altar, we are closest out in the open air on a sunny day.
During this time, I make extra efforts to check in and to make a continued connection via my ancestor altar, writing letters, and relaying the crazy antics of current events in the world. These are all ways of checking in with those who no longer reside here in a physical sense.
Our ancestors love us, revel in our triumphs, and give sage wisdom in times of need. Like any relationship, our ancestors need to know that they are a part of our lives beyond the occasional request for aid and assistance. So while many consider the days at the end of October and beginning of November to be just days for the dead, this is also an excellent time to nurture a new or continuing relationship with our beloved dead.
First, many traditions use and encourage the presence of an ancestor altar, just as deities have their own altars. The ancestor altar can be a simple as a collection of photographs, memorabilia from deceased loved ones, and ritual items to connect with and to honor the loved ones. An altar might include urns for ancestor remains, water and food for the ancestors to enjoy, and items made by or for the loved ones. What matters is the devotion given to the ancestors, not the size of the altar.
An ancestor altar should be accessible, but in a secure place where it won’t be disturbed. Just like with a deity’s altar, it is important to take time to stop and visit with the ancestors represented on the altar on a regular basis. With time, the ancestors’ preferences become more apparent – one may seem to like a cup of wine, another a glass of whiskey, though since every human needs water to survive, a tall glass of fresh water is almost always welcome. Food offerings, and how often to give them, often depends on the practitioner’s tradition.
Another way to begin or to maintain a connection is through continuing an art or gift that the ancestor has passed on through the generations. I honor one of my great aunts through the art of crocheting and knitting. I learned sewing, as most members of my family did, with some making their own clothing. While I can sew, however, I really took to crocheting as a child. It was not until I was a teenager working with one of my great aunts that I felt a deeper family connection to that craft.
As a means of connection and to continue to honor what she taught me, I weave the yarn to crochet and to knit. As I reconnected with my aunt as an ancestor, I have received several cloth crochet bags through slightly unusual coincidences, such as a sample vendor in a store and a receptionist in retail store front. One sits on my altar with my current project.
A third means to make a connection is through memory, and through the things that bring up those memories. Music can bring forth memories and honor for deceased loved ones. A letter can let them know what is going on in life and in the world. For those of us still grieving, perhaps a love letter is most appropriate. Leave it on the ancestor altar, or read it to them.
Perhaps one’s ancestral devotion is one of service. Is there a cause or group that an ancestor founded, joined, or worked with? Volunteer for that group or effort. Was this ancestor an animal lover? Consider fostering animals in need of temporary homes or volunteer at a local shelter. Did that loved one spend time with children? Find time to work with organizations that help children in need, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Finally, if none of these seem to appeal due to a lack of time, space, or energy, enter ritual space and call upon the ancestors there. The beauty of ritual is that the space is sacred and protected by the Gods. Keep in mind that our ancestors are present. Sometimes they are just waiting for a sign to communicate with us. So when in doubt, banish or clear the space, draw a circle, bless it with the elements, and call in the loved ones.
In my home tradition, this is the time of Hecate, with the celebration of Hecatia. What I love about working with Hecate is that she is wonderful with helping one to connect with those who have passed on. As she of the crossroads, torch bearer, and key holder, Hecate helps us to find what is hidden; moreover, she helps us to live life fully. Sometimes our connection with the ancestors has been hidden and just needs a bit of help to come out. Make this a time to check in and come home.