Happy Halloween!! Origins of our Festivals of the Dead 👻🎃💀
This time of year, we celebrate Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and other Festivals of the Dead. According to the Wheel of the Year, this time is also celebrated as the last of the harvest seasons and the New Year for witches, wiccans, and other pagans. This post will be about the origins of the festivals! Make sure you tune in tomorrow, on Samhain / All Saint's Day, to read about some modern ways to celebrate this ancient festival!
It is not just coincidence that many holidays in the Northern Hemisphere that remember the dead all happen around this time: This is the time of the year when the last of the plants die or go dormant for the winter, the weather continues to get colder, and the darker half of the year begins. The veil separating this world and the next is believed to get thinner and thinner, and the days between October 30th and November 2nd are considered to be days when that veil is lifted. Depending on the festival, traditions say that fairies run around those days creating extra mischief, spirits can come through more than normal and paranormal activity reaches its height, or ancestors can come back and visit their loved ones. For some, this is simply a time to remember loved ones and important people who have passed from this world into the next.
The origins of our modern Festivals of the Dead are rooted in the Celtic festival Samhain, which is the last of the three harvest festivals, after Lammas and Mabon (read a little bit about Mabon here!). Like many ancient festivals, Samhain began on sundown and continued into the next day. It was (and still is) celebrated on the evening of October 31st into November 1st, and November 1st was considered the beginning of the New Year. Being that it was the last of the Harvest Festivals, it was seen as the end of the growing season, and the time when food and goods should be stockpiled and ready of go for the winter months ahead. The Earth was considered to be dying or hibernating until Winter Solstice, when the sun would be reborn, and spring, when the Earth would begin to come to life again. They believed that the separation between the living and the dead was closer and that spirits could roam more freely on the Earth. Other mythical being were more active during these days too; creatures like fairies and goblins wrecked extra havoc.
People began to dress up with masks and ghostly costumes to try to trick those from the beyond-if the spirits believed they were of the spirit world too, they would be left alone! They also left food and drinks on their doorsteps so that the spirits would leave their homes alone. But not everyone wanted to avoid the paranormal during those days. The extra presence of spirits from other worlds was believed to increase people's ability to predict the future and work magic, especially protection magic for the upcoming cold months. Bonfires were lit, carved faces into turnips, people bobbed for apples, dressed in costumes, and played tricks on one another.
Any of this sound familiar? Some of our funnest and most beloved Halloween traditions came from this ancient Celtic holiday which is still celebrated today by those who adhere to a season-based system of holidays like the Wheel of the Year! Traditions like trick-or-treating, dressing up in costumes, having bonfires, and carving pumpkins can all be traced back to the ancient festival of Samhain. Halloween developed over a long period time in America, where waves of immigrants all brought with them their own ways to celebrate the end of the harvest and honor their dearly departed. But there was not a clear transition between Samhain and Halloween, which is largely regarded now as a non-spiritual holiday. Between the two came some other well-known and loved festivals that remained religious is nature.
A few examples of spiritual holidays that came from Samhain are found in All Hallows (and All Hallows Eve), also known as All Souls Day and All Saints Day! The Roman Catholic pope who originally declared the feast to celebrate saints and martyrs had set aside May 13th for the purpose, but it was later moved to November 1st, so that it would coincide with pre-existing festivals to honor the departed. Hundreds of years later, the festival expanded to include November 2nd: the 1st is still celebrated as All Saints Day, and the 2nd All Souls Day. All Saints Day honors souls that have gone to Heaven and reminds those on Earth to live like Saints, and All Souls Day honors those who have departed and are being cleansed so that they can continue on to Heaven, and encouraged those on Earth to remember and help them by offering prayers on their behalf.
All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligations, a day where all should go to Mass and use the day as a day of celebration, not a day of work. People celebrate Saints and tell stories of great men and women who should be imitated and honored. All Souls Day is not a Holy Day of Obligation, but is also a day to celebrate those who have departed, in this case, the "faithfully departed"- those who have died faithful but need to be cleansed in purgatory before going to Heaven. All Souls Day is therefore a day for offering prays and alms for the dead, especially one's own relatives. Visiting and decorating graves, lighting candles, and other traditions are commonly observed on All Souls Day. Originally, celebrations for these days were very similar to Samhain traditions: people held parades, dressed up like angels and saints, and remembered the dead. But the traditions evolved based on the places they were carried to.
Protestants generally celebrate only November 1st, All Saints Day, because they see all departed Christians as Saints in Heaven. However, they usually reject the more elaborate traditions associated with honoring the dead. But they still set aside a special service to remember all Saints-both historic and famous saints, and those within their own congregations that have passed within the last year. In these groups, it is common for All Saint's Day a spiritual holy day, and Halloween, a non-spiritual holiday, to be celebrated separably! But this is not the case in every culture.
In Mexico, a festival that lasts from October 31 through November 2nd was developed: the Day (or Days) of the Dead. Interestingly, people in Mexico originally celebrated the dead earlier in the Summer, but with the influence of Catholicism, the festival of the dead was moved to align with All Saints and Souls Days (and by consequence, Samhain!). This three-day-long festival is much loved, because it is believed that departed relatives can rejoin their families just for this time of the year. Some believe that their relatives may communicate with them and even offer advice. The 31st is celebrated as All Hallow's Even, the 1st, the Day of the Innocent (which celebrates children who have departed and saints in Heaven, like All Saints Day), and the 2nd, is All Soul's Day, or the Day of the Dead.
It is common for people who celebrate these days to gather both things that remind them of their deceased relatives (like photographs) and also offerings for their spirits (like favorite foods). It is common to make sugar skulls, beautifully decorated, and also a special bread which is shaped like a person. All this is often placed on special alters built for spirits who may return to their homes and families. Graves are decorated, and some people may spend whole days in the cemeteries. People wear special clothes, hold parades, and spend extra time with their friends and family.
There are many different ways to honor and celebrate the upcoming darker months of the year, and also remember those loved ones who have gone before us. Some people celebrate this time of year as a religious holiday, while for others, it is simply a fun holiday to dress up and eat delicious treats! How do you celebrate these days? However you do, keep in mind the ancient traditions that came before you, don't eat to much candy, and stay warm tonight!