Halloween and Day of the Dead

Halloween – the day of visiting spooks and goblins, comic book heroes and Disney characters, and an occasional pet dressed up in ruffles or a hotdog bun. Now, it is a time to dress up and collect bags of candy. Its roots, though, go very deep. Here is a glimpse into ancient roots, modern expressions, and personal observance of this time.

Halloween on October 31 is one of a series of festivals honoring harvest and the dead. November 1, All Saints Day in the Western Christian church, honors saints and martyrs. The following day, November 2, is All Souls Day, also called El Dia de Los Muertos in Latin American communities – a day to honor the dead. Together, the three celebrations of the Eve of All Saints, All Saints, and All Souls, were called Hallowmas. All Hallows Eve became Hallowe’en. Many of the familiar customs of Halloween reflect ancient beliefs in the ‘thinning of the veils’ between the worlds of the living and the dead at this time.

Halloween

Halloween’s origin is in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’). Samhain, on November 1, is the Celtic New Year, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of the winter half of the year. Celts believed that on Samhain the gates of the otherworld were open, allowing communion with the ancestors. A huge sacred bonfire was lit. Each family’s hearth fire was extinguished before the festival, to be re-lit from the embers of the sacred Samhain bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

Visits from the dead were usually a good thing – the ancestors were respected as keepers of lore and wisdom. Celtic tales often told of the dead returning to give knowledge to their descendants or to restore memory of ancient traditions. The ghostly visits weren’t only ancestral mentors, as they often were blamed for causing trouble and damaging crops. In later times, ‘creatures of the night’ also were associated with this time (witchcraft, black cats, bats, owls).

Celts believed the thinning of the veil between the worlds made it easier for Druid priests to make predictions about the future – an important source of comfort and direction during the long winter for a people dependent on the natural world for their survival.

After the Romans and Christianity spread through Celtic lands, the festival of Samhain was blended with two Roman traditions. Feralia was a day in late October when Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. Pomona’s day honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.

In the 800s, Pope Boniface IV set November 1 as All Saints Day to honor saints and martyrs, perhaps to replace the Celtic festival with a related, church-sanctioned holiday. In around 1000, November 2 was named All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes. (1)

Halloween customs

Carved pumpkins – The legend of “Jack of the Lantern” originated in Ireland. A selfish man named Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven, so the devil gave him a hot coal. Jack carried the glowing coal inside a carved turnip as he searched for a way into heaven. When this story came to America, people found the larger pumpkins to make much better ‘Jack-o-lanterns’ than turnips.

Bobbing for apples – The Roman goddess Pomona’s symbol is the apple, which may explain the tradition of ‘apple bobbing’ often practiced on Halloween.

Decorations – Many of the decorations, such as scarecrows, cornstalks, and pumpkins, reflect the traditions of honoring the harvest.

Skeletons and haunted houses – Skeletons and ‘haunted houses’ remind us of our ancestors and that we may receive visits from the ‘other world’ on Halloween night. Black cats, bats, and gnarly witches also are associated with Halloween – so be sure to keep your black cat indoors!

Costumes – People often dressed in costumes to disguise themselves so their visiting ancestors couldn’t harm them, or to honor the spirits they wanted to bring in, such as animals they needed for food during the cold winter.

Trick or Treat – Children used to go from house to house and threaten a ‘trick’ if they didn’t get a ‘treat.’ Now, it is the way trick-or-treaters ask for the candy and other treats offered by houses they visit. Sometimes homes give ‘healthy’ treats, and sometimes children ask for donations for local charities.

A good children’s book on Halloween customs and origins is, “Halloween is …” by Gail Gibbons (Holiday House, New York, 2002).

El Dia de Los Muertos

All Souls Day takes on special significance throughout Latin American countries and Latino communities as el Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead celebrates the ancestors and the cycles of death and rebirth. These rituals have been practiced in Mexico by indigenous cultures for 2,500-3,000 years.(2) Many regions with large Latino communities hold regional Dia de los Muertos celebrations throughout the end of October and early November. As with many practices, indigenous traditions blended with imported Catholic Christian traditions to produce the celebration we see today.

During Dia de los Muertos celebrations, people often build private altars with photos and mementoes of their departed friends and relatives, and visit cemeteries to be with them. “The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.”(3)

Your own celebration

As we deepen into the dark half of the year, there is rich opportunity to celebrate our own departed friends and family – including animal companions who have died. Ritual is an important part of the grief process. It helps us express feelings for those who have died, and gives us a concrete way to honor and remember them and the time their life was joined with ours.

Mixing and mingling traditions can be very healing. A Jewish friend said that on the Day of the Dead, she and a friend visit a pet cemetery and place a dog bone on each headstone. This interfaith expression is similar to the Jewish tradition of placing a small stone on the headstone, which signifies that someone has honored the deceased’s memory with a visit to the grave. This tradition dates back to the time when graves were marked with a cairn of stones. “Each mourner coming and adding a stone was effectively taking part in the Mitzvah of matzevah (“setting a stone”) as well as or instead of levayat ha-meyt (“accompany the dead”).”(4)

Build an altar for your deceased animal or human companion, or honor the greater scope of the community and the world with an altar to honor the earth, children who have died by violence, war victims, or others as your compassion directs you. A simple shoebox or other box provides a container. A tabletop or windowsill can be dedicated to your altar. Cover it with fabric or colored paper; add photos, mementoes, fur, feathers, candles, yellow marigolds, favorite foods, and anything else you can think of.

Personalize it! On a memory altar for my cat, Paddy Paws (who was famous in our family for ejecting hairballs), I added a hairball that was so tightly packed it survived being laundered! For my dog, Buki, I added a cast of her footprint, taken the last time she stood. It was mounted in a shadowbox frame surrounded by her fur.

As you deepen into your altar construction experience, more ideas will come to you. And it’s okay to laugh, or cry!

Sources:

(1) Matthews, Caitlin, The Celtic Book of Days, Destiny Books, 1995. See also www.History.com
(2) Miller, Carlos (2005). “History: Indigenous people wouldn’t let ‘Day of the Dead’ die“. Day of the Dead — Día De Los Muertos (The Arizona Republic). http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/history/.
(3) Palfrey, Dale Hoyt (1995). “The Day of the Dead“. Día de los Muertos Index. Access Mexico Connect. http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/muertos.html.
(4) DuPre, Aimee, 2006, Temple Emanu-El of San Jose.

What personal rituals do you use to celebrate this time of year?

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"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Gandhi
"There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together." - attributed to Gandhi
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