Halloween dates back over 2000 years, a celebration originating with the Celts, a tribal group that dominated central Europe in the Iron Age and spread their culture to Ireland, England and Scotland in the 5th century BC.
The Celts were a mystical and superstitious race whose world was closely associated with a nature. All living and non-living things had spirits: trees, stones, animals and water. There was a thin line between the real and the supernatural.
The festival of Halloween, then known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in) was a religious ceremony to signify the end of summer, the completion of the harvest and a solemn preparation for the hard, cold winter when nights became longer, food became scarce and people feared the dark.
In the Celtic religion, the New Year began November 1. The last night of the year, October 31, became symbolic with death. The Celts believed the spirits of the dead came back on this night to roam among the living and cause mischief. The Druid priests would hold a community bonfire with everyone dressed in costumes made of animal heads and skins so as not to be recognized by the supernatural beings wandering the earth.
People would extinguish their home fires, leave food and wine outside for the trickster ghosts so they would not enter the house, then gather at the ceremony where the priests would make predictions about the year to come. Afterwards, each family would relight their hearths from the sacred fire in the hope this would protect them from the frightful and uncertain winter ahead.
Roman Influence and the Rise of Christianity
The Romans had conquered the Celts by 43 AD and ruled the area for 400 years. They incorporated several of their own beliefs into the Celtic festival of Samhain. The Romans celebrated the souls of the deceased in a public festival called Feralia, held in February. In October, they honored Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol was the apple and synonymous with the harvest. The pagan rituals of the Romans were easily interchangeable with those of the Britons.
Christianity began to spread to Britain by 800 AD. As a way to Christianize the pagan rituals of Samhain, Pope Boniface IV declared November 1 a day to honor all saints and made attendance at mass mandatory. The day was called All Hallows or All Hallowmas, Middle English for All Saints Day. The night before became known as All Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween. In 1000 AD, the church would make November 2 All Souls Day, a day to honor the “faithful departed”.
Despite their efforts, the traditions of Samhain carried on and the three days of All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls, called Hallowmas, were still celebrated with bonfires and costumes. Wearing a mask to ward off ghosts on October 31 has never waned.
These European traditions evolved over the centuries and were brought to the United States and Canada with the settling of the British colonies and later with the immigration of the Irish in the 1850’s.
Today Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the US.
Halloween Arrives in Mexico
The Catholic celebrations of All Saints and All Souls were brought to Mexico with the arrival of the Spanish in the New World. The Aztecs also had a festival dedicated to the dead, held in the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontl, equivalent to our calendar month of July and named for the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead.
Again, in an attempt to Christianize existing rituals of pagan worship and peacefully blend the two cultures, the church combined the Aztec festival with their own. The Spanish priests changed the Aztec ceremony from the beginning of summer to coincide with their own ceremony that honored the dead, All Souls Day, celebrated at the end of summer.
Today, Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated all over Latin America and in Hispanic areas of North America. It has become a holiday of cultural importance and in rural areas of Mexico where the original indigenous populations are more prevalent, the holiday has significant religious implications.
All Souls, November 2, is Day of the Dead, when the faithful departed are honored. November 3 is dedicated to fallen children.
Different in tone from the northern European fear of the dead, the Aztec-Spanish tradition embraces the spirits of loved ones passed and uses this time to reminisce and remember their time among the living.
The idea is that on this day of All Souls, those who have “shuffled of this mortal coil” return to visit their earthly domain. Relatives must make a welcoming gesture for their arrival. Elaborate altars are displayed with photographs and mementos of the deceased, offerings of their favorite food and drink, and other worldly pleasures such as tobacco, alcohol and music, all made available for the enjoyment of the visiting spirits.
Graves are spruced up and laden with flowers that commemorate the dead. Using marigolds dates back to the Aztecs; chrysanthemums are seasonal and representative of the month of November. Candles are lit to help guide the loved one’s journey.
Food is an important aspect of the celebration. Many of the dishes are from pre-Columbian times as well. Atole is served, a hot drink made from corn masa and usually flavored with chocolate, another Aztec ingredient. Meat pies and baked goods such as pan de muerto bear cross bones.
Skull candy is a must and quite expensive. It is generally used to decorate the altars rather than for consumption.
While seemingly macabre, Day of the Dead is in fact a celebration of life.
Interconnected through Time and Space
Not just a child’s game of Trick or Treat or a tongue in cheek look at death, Halloween and Day of the Dead are connected through time. Based on religious beliefs, their origins stem from sacred ceremonies and represent man’s nebulous coexistence with the spiritual world.
This Halloween if you leave your home during the night, you may decide to wear a disguise so the roaming spirits won’t recognize you. You can then wake up in the secure light of day, offer a drink to your favorite ancestor and relight your hearth in anticipation of a safe and plentiful winter.
History of Halloween, The History Channel
Day of the Dead, by Ricardo Salvador