THE DUMB SUPPER
The 'Dumb Supper' is a folk tradition shrouded in mystery, however in modern times can be a wonderful way to commune with and honor our loved ones beyond the veil. The true origins of this ritual dinner are not easy to come by, with many cultures and places of origin claiming parts of the tradition. Some people even believe it to have been a tool used in antiquity to divine future husbands. It is generally understood however that they are held around Halloween because that is when the veil between our world and the Spirit world is the thinnest, therefore making it the best time of year to commune and connect with our deceased loved ones.
Today, it can be simplified as a meal (dinner, usually) in which the attendees are silent and leave a space to invite their loved ones who have passed on to join them at the table. Typically, each attendee to the dinner will bring a letter or note that is for the ancestor or loved one they are honoring at the dinner. Gifts or tokens can also be offered alongside the letters and a candle is always lit by each guest, also in honor of their dead. Those are the most important factors to the dinner, the rest is completely up to you and your guests! I've found that hosting the meal as a potluck or family-style dinner takes a lot of the stress of hosting out of the equation. If nobody can talk for the duration of the event, making it so that everyone can feel free to serve themselves whenever they want seconds or drink refills just makes it much easier on everyone. A potluck ensures that everyone in attendance will have something they can eat and also allows for guests to prepare dishes that maybe the loved ones they are honoring at the dinner would have liked as well. It's the personal little touches like that which make it a more special experience.
Since we are bringing these traditions into the modern era, I also believe that a Dumb Supper can be reflective of the people you are honoring. If you are hosting family and you're loved ones were all about a party or celebration, the atmosphere can reflect that. If there is a mixed group, you may want to keep it more somber. Traditionally, the table is set in black or white, but again, it's modern times and I think what makes the most difference is decorating in ways that you feel your honorees would appreciate. The purpose of this tradition after all is to connect and honor our ancestors, so what better way to do that then trying to make the event as reminiscent of the things they liked.
Food is a big part of Halloween, as it is synonymous with the Autumn Harvest in older traditions. A traditional food offering that is a sweet tradition for Dumb Suppers or
Halloween in general is the making of Soul Cakes. These were traditionally baked as a gift for the spirits or baked and offered as the original treat to those coming knocking at your door. The idea was that for every soul cake given, a prayer would be made for the dead. Today, they can be used as a way to pass down family recipes and similarly wish-well for our dearly departed. As there are many variations on the recipe for Soul Cake, it's more fun to play around with what's out there and concoct your own to pass down!
According to the Irish folktale, Jack-O-Lanterns actually started out as turnips! The story goes that Stingy Jack repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way.
Eventually, this folktale transformed into the practice of people carving scary faces into their pumpkins (likely because of the larger surface area than a turnip) to scare away ghosts and bad spirits from their homes. The tradition of wearing costumes has a similar origin story in which people believed they could fake-out & blend in with the spirits of the dead who rise up to walk the earth on Halloween.
In a reverse tradition from trying to scare the spirits away, there is an old tradition of opening West facing windows and placing candles in them to guide ancestral spirits back home during the day when the veil is at its thinnest.
TRICK OR TREATING
There are many many variations of the roots of this tradition, but the way most of us are familiar with can be traced back to the practice of leaving offerings outside of the home to appease the risen spirits of the dead. Over the decades, the tradition of wearing costumes to blend in with the ghosts of Halloween transformed into what is now Trick or Treating (in one version of the tale).
Other versions include, but are not limited to, the Belsnickling (hello fellow The Office fans) tradition of children dressing up and going from neighbor to neighbor to see if they could guess their costumes. If the neighbors could not guess the costume, the child would receive a treat in the form of candy or sweets.
Today, we can bring these traditions into our modern homes to connect with the Spirits of Halloween by hosting meals like a Dumb Supper or adding in treats to our trick or treat bowls that our departed loved ones enjoyed or even carving our pumpkins in their honor. There are countless ways of using the traditions of old in modern ways to celebrate the real magic behind Halloween!