I know it’s almost time to turn our attention to Christmas, Solstice, and other winter holidays, but posting about Samhain as a thin time got me curious about other ones. Also, today is the 2nd anniversary of Coco‘s release, so I want to take a moment to quickly cover just a few more!
Beltane and Midsummer
Samhain is not the only thin time from the Celtic world. Its flip side was Beltane or Bealtaine, falling roughly on May 1.use 1 Like Samhain, Beltane began with hearths extinguished and bonfires from which new hearth fires were lit.2 These bonfires were lit at dawn, however. People danced around them while driving livestock between them, the herds later blessed to ensure fertility through the year. It was a celebration of life and light returning rather than leaving. Fairy visitors still posed a danger, as they apparently fought in the mortal world on this night, but bonfires helped keep them at bay. Other traditions, such as maypole dances, may have developed later as Beltane beliefs were adapted into May Day.3
I’ve also seen Midsummer and the Summer Solstice listed as a thin time, but generally Samhain and Beltane are considered the two days when the veil is thinnest.4 Probably the idea of Midsummer as a thin time comes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the belief that fairies were at their most lively on Midsummer.5 It may also be that Midsummer, the middle of the Julian and Gregorian year, took on the significance of Beltane, the middle of the Celtic year, after the calendar change.
In Media: Thanks to Shakespeare, Midsummer has been featured in many books and movies, the most recent adaption in 2018. Especially by its original name, however, Beltane is less well-known. Movies set around Beltane are often horror films, like Wicker Man. Books are more promising, though the Goodreads list of Popular Beltane books is pretty short. I did, however, stumble on this 2016 fantasy novel by Alys West that not only centers on Beltane but also makes the thin time an important part of the plot. Although the description implies a more positive view of druids and paganism than the horror films, Beltane is still mentioned with a note of fear because it opens the door to otherworldly power. I find it ironic that Beltane, most likely viewed as a joyous time by those who celebrated it, has now taken on a darker tone in media.
Día de los Muertos
Also known as “NOT Mexican Halloween.” Día de los Muertos takes the date and some parts of All Soul’s Day on November 2nd and combines them with Aztec and Nahua rituals.6 The indigenous rites still have a separate existence as “the festival of the fleshless” in August,7 but you can also see their influence in Día de los Muertos. Aztec offerings to their ancestors became the basis for the ofrenda altars that hold offerings and pictures of loved ones today. The Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl, lives on as the skeleton lady La Calavera Catrina. Meanwhile, the pan de muerto or “bread of the dead” laid on those altars traces back to medieval Spain. The Spanish also brought over the marigold, now the iconic flower of the day as their scent is believed to guide the dead back home.8
The biggest difference, of course, is the attitude toward the dead. As Clarisse Loughrey from the Independent points out, the Celts showed fear toward some of the returning dead on Samhain.9 All Soul’s Day, while not necessarily fearful, was originally a sober day centered on offering prayers to help those suffering in Purgatory.10 However, modern Día de los Muertos is truly celebratory. Instead of fearing harm when the gates to the land of the dead open, people put on colorful displays of music and dance as they welcome back departed family members. This is another legacy from the indigenous cultures of Mexico, 11 whose land of the dead offered not judgement but rest and even the chance for rebirth for some.12
In Media: Probably the most well-known media representation of Día de los Muertos is the Disney Pixar film Coco. When Miguel accidentally crosses into the land of the dead, he meets his ancestors and discovers new truths about them. The dead, shown as skeletons resembling common Día de los Muertos make-up, are no more dangerous than ordinary people. However, moving between the worlds has clear conditions. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda is shocked and outraged when she sees him, since the dead visit the living but not the other way around. She is also unable to visit because he took her picture from the ofrenda.13 On Miguel’s side, if he doesn’t return to the living using a marigold petal and a blessing from ancestor by sunrise, he will become one of the dead. The film represents the worlds of living and dead as connected only during the designated thin time, the doors closing to everything but memory in ordinary time.
Gui Jie/Yulan Jie/ Zhongyuan Jie
Thin times are not always brief. In China the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar is Guǐ yuè (鬼月) or Ghost Month, culminating in the Guǐ Jie (鬼节) or Ghost Festival on the 14th or 15th day.14 The festival is called Zhongyuan in Taoist traditions and Yulan in Buddhist, though a commonly cited origin story is entirely Buddhist. In the Indian Ullambana sutra, Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana (Mulian in China) makes offerings on the date that becomes the Ghost Festival to ease his mother’s suffering after she is reborn as a hungry ghost.15 For Ghost Month, the thin time begins at the first day, as the gates of “hell” are opened and the ghosts return to earth.16 This Chinese hell differs from Christian hell in that, while souls suffer for misdeeds in life, it is a temporary stage on the way to reincarnation and so only the most saintly avoid visiting it.17 This means visiting ghosts include everyone from ancestors to vengeful spirits, making Ghost Month a time of both fear and remembrance.
Different regions likely have different variations on Ghost Month activities, but most involve giving offerings to the ghosts while keeping out of harm’s way. Paper money and clothes are burned so the spirits can have them, and plates of food are left out for wandering ghosts.18 Happy ghosts are thought to be less likely to cause trouble, but people still avoid swimming in case a ghost tries to drown them. On Ghost Festival day, ancestral tablets are brought to the table and offered incense plus three meals. Offerings to family members are believed to help improve their afterlife experience,19 so in that respect the Ghost Festival is an act of compassion. On the last day of Ghost Month, brightly colored lanterns are floated down rivers to help guide the ghosts back to the underworld.20
In Media: The Ghost Festival/Month appear in a variety of media, but my favorite recent use of this thin time is a YA novel, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan. Leigh, convinced her mother became a bird around the time she committed suicide, travels to meet her mother’s parents in Taiwan. With Ghost Month in full swing, she pursues the bird. Her sense of urgency increases when she learns of the belief that the departed remain on earth for 49 days to tie up loose ends before moving on.21 Seeking a last message, Leigh uses a set of mysterious incense sticks to uncover memories that shed light on not only her mother’s life but her grandmother’s and her own as well. Rather than focusing on the fear thin times can inspire, the book uses the Ghost Month as a healing opportunity. Feng, a young woman who follows Leigh on her journey, comments, “I take a lot of comfort in seeing Ghost Month offerings” because they remind her love does not end with death.22 Once Ghost Month is over, Leigh stops seeing the bird, but she keeps her memories and the understanding they bring.
Finally, there are thin times that come around every day, if only for a short time. Twilight, the moment day slips into night, is often imbued with a mystical sense. In Japan, tasogare has long been considered a time when worlds touch and boundaries blur. The modern word comes from the older tasokare-doki, which can be translated as “the hour of who is that,”23 referring to the difficulty of recognizing faces in low light. It may sound humorous put that way, but this was actually a feared time. The blurring of faces increased the sense that one could not know if they were seeing another human or merely something human-shaped in the gloom.
Another term used for this time, Ōmagatoki, is even more ominous. Depending how it was written, it could mean “the hour of meeting evil spirits” or “the hour of great calamity.”24 Folklore around Ōmagatoki says this is the time when the border between the spirit world and the ordinary world opens enough for ghosts and various types of malicious spirit beings to cross over. The fear of meeting these beings led to the common wisdom of staying indoors from twilight to sunrise, when the spirits returned to their world.25 Those who didn’t risked ghostly encounters and even being spirited away.26
In Media: Tasogare is used as a thin time in a few manga and their respective anime. Of the two I’ve seen, Your Name (Kimi no na wa or 君の名は) explores it most thoroughly. The story follows country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki as they come to love each other after repeatedly swapping bodies, eventually learning their timelines are three years apart. Mitsuha’s teacher introduces tasogare, discussing the origin of the word and older variations like kawatare-doki. The main term used, however, is kataware-doki (“magic hour” in the English dub),27 supposedly an archaic local version. The climactic scene of the film also takes place at kataware-doki, as Mitsuha and Taki finally meet face-to-face across time on the rim of a comet fragment’s crater. When it ends, the experiences from it become dreamlike for Mitsuha and Taki, yet the feeling remains.
It’s possible kataware-doki is a word made up for the film, but it still carries some interesting nuances. An answer from “tohaku” on Hinative claims it can be interpreted as “‘the soul that cannot separate’ or ‘a destined lover.’”28 Consulting Japanese dictionaries, I also found that kataware means “fragment” and doki means “time.” So kataware-doki is a fragmented/fragmenting time. Quite appropriate for a movie where the main characters experience fragments of each other’s lives.
So here are a few more thin times to think about. These are just a small sample, chosen for differing lengths of time and placement on the calendar. Do you know of another holiday or time where doors to other worlds are said to open? If you do, or if you know something more about the thin times mentioned here, please share in comments!
- MacCana, Proinsias, “Celtic Religion: An Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, Vol. 3. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005) 1478-1497. Gale In Context: World History. Pg. 1491.
- Preet, Edythe, “Showers Bring Flowers,” Irish America, Apr/May 2005, Proquest.
- “May Day: Europeans Seasonal Holiday,” Encyclopedia Britannica , accessed Nov. 21, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/May-Day-European-seasonal-holiday.
- Toole, Angie, “Pagans Believe Samhain is a Time When the Barrier Between Us, the Spirit World Wears Thin,” Northwest Florida Daily News, Oct. 26, 2003, Proquest.
- Preet, “Showers.”
- “Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos),” History.com, last modified Oct. 28, 2019, accessed Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/day-of-the-dead.
- “Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) in Mexico,” PVRGO, accessed Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.pvrgo.com/vallarta-guide/events/day-of-the-dead-mexico/.
- Huber, Kathy, “Cheerful Marigold is Flower of the Dead,” Houston Chronicle, Oct. 31, 2011, https://www.chron.com/life/article/Cheerful-marigold-is-flower-of-the-dead-2245436.php.
- Loughrey, Clarisse, “Coco Will Challenge the Way You Look at Death,” Independent, Jan 17, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/coco-pixar-second-death-final-death-day-of-dead-dia-de-muertos-a8164491.html.
- “All Soul’s Day,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified Sep 17, 2018, accessed Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/All-Souls-Day-Christianity.
- Loughrey, “Coco Will Challenge.”
- “Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) in Mexico,” PVRGO.
- Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, Emeryville and Burbank: Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2017.
- “Hungry Ghost Festival,” China Highlights, last modified Oct. 24, 2019, accessed Nov. 14, 2019, https://www.chinahighlights.com/festivals/hungry-ghost-festival.htm.
- “Mulian Rescues His Mother,” World Digital Library, last modified Jan. 3, 2018, accessed Nov. 14, 2019, https://www.wdl.org/en/item/7110/.
- “Hungry Ghost Festival.”
- Cohen, Myron L, and Stephen F. Teisler, consultants, “The Ten Magistrates of the Underworld,” Asia for Educators, accessed Nov. 16, 2019, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos/prb/underworld.htm.
- “Hungry Ghost Festival.”
- “Different Shades of Western and Chinese ‘Ghost Festivals,’” China Daily, Nov. 1, 2017, accessed Nov. 13, 2019, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2017-11/01/content_33972800.htm, page 2.
- “Hungry Ghost Festival.”
- Pan, Emily X. R., The Astonishing Color of After, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018), 143.
- Pan, 290.
- Adachitoka, “Translation Notes,” Noragami vol. 2, trans. Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley (New York: Kodansha Comics, 2011), note for pg. 144 ( no number but approximately page 197).
- “Ōmagatoki,” Yokai.com, accessed Nov. 15, 2019, http://yokai.com/oumagatoki/.
- “Hinode,” Yokai.com, accessed Nov. 15, 2019, http://yokai.com/hinode/.
- Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai, Japan: Toho and Funimation, 2016.
- tohaku, April 20, 2017 answer on the question, “かたわれ時 とはどういう意味ですか?,” HiNative. Accessed Nov. 15, 2019, https://hinative.com/ja/questions/2426240.