Death and the care of souls


Día de los Muertos altar commemorating a deceased man in Milpa Alta, México DF. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Tonight at sunset, the three-day Celtic New Year begins with the festival of Samhain, an old harvest ritual marking the end of summer. When you give out candy on Halloween to the children who come to your door, or take kids disguised as superheroes and fictional protagonists out to hit up the neighbors for candy, you are participating in a ritual that is more than a thousand years old. Trick or Treating in disguise is only a modern version of mumming and guising, where alms were distributed to those who came knocking at harvest time and yuletide. The result of the rare occurrence of plentiful food and alcohol marking the end of the reaping and gathering season, Samhain was a magical time where people shared food and visited each other to celebrate the cycles of fertility and death foretold by the coming of winter.

Halloween may owe some of its dual nature–a mix of fascination with the supernatural with charity towards others and a reverence for the dead–to Catholicism. In an attempt to replace Samhain with Christian holidays similarly focused on the care of souls, Pope Gregory III in the eighth century moved the feast of the martyrs to the beginning of November as All Saints Day; two hundred years later, All Souls’ Day was added as the day after All Saints’ Day. Lisa Morton notes in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween that by 1493, partying on Halloween was an established custom in Britain, though both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I tried in vain to stop the practice of ringing church bells all night long on Allhallow Day for souls in purgatory. While the Church may have once hoped to transform Samhain into a Christian holiday, the convergence of “Halowen Daye,” All Saints Day, and All Souls Day had the opposite result, lodging Samhain securely within the religious calendar, and with it, preserving the old Irish and Scottish celebrations marked by feasting and drunken revelry.

Halloween also owes something to Guy Fawkes Day and the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Bonfires celebrating the failure of the conspirators to kindle their 36 barrels of explosives beneath the House of Lords have been lit regularly in England since November 5, 1605. Morton tells us that even when the Puritans banned all holidays in 1647, they preserved Guy Fawkes Day, and Halloween in Britain merged with that holiday, which remains its most popular autumn celebration. Elsewhere, in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, Halloween survived, and was brought to the New World by immigrants in the nineteenth century.

Día de los Muertos, the Day(s) of the Dead, is another holiday with similarly ancient roots celebrated in Mexico and many parts of the U.S. (and elsewhere) on November 1 and 2. It is thought that the Spanish who invaded Mexico encountered Aztec and Mayan autumn rituals honoring the dead and the cycle of life and rebirth and attempted to replace them with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. The result has been a Christian holiday that–like Halloween–retains many older practices of feasting and honoring the dead. Large Mexican American populations in the U.S. have spread the customs and popularity of Día de los Muertos, and some Americans have come to see it as another layer of Halloween. While some blending of the two holidays is probably inevitable, particular stress on the unique nature of the Day of the Dead has emerged this year in the media, emphasizing the specificity of this holiday to Mexican culture as a reverential celebration where relatives and neighbors who have died are remembered with altars of flowers and lit candles, and those who survive them also give thanks for their own blessed lives upon the earth.

Both Samhain and Día de los Muertos —and to a certain extent, old All Hallow’s Eve– recognize these festival days as a time when the barriers between the living and the dead are more fluid. This gives the holiday a supernatural air of mystery and magic. Old fortunetelling customs such as scrying, or looking into a mirror to see one’s future spouse, were practiced on Halloween even into the 20th century, and contemporary games such as bobbing for apples have their roots in older practices of divination associated with the holiday. The act of dressing up in costumes recognizes this old sense of fluid identity and even incorporation, as celebrants invite spirits from the other world to visit, communicate, and join in the festivities.

Today Halloween is mostly celebrated by children dressing in costumes and Trick or Treating for candy, but even this act of knocking on doors hearkens back to old communal customs. At this time of year, when night comes early, the fields are bare, and the wind blows cold, asking for alms, sharing food, and opening up one’s house to strangers are all ways of recognizing the deep bonds between rich and poor, prosperous and needy, fortunate and unlucky that link communities together. Pundits and politicians often like to talk about the need to share the giving spirit of Christmas during other months, but we might do even better adopting the virtues of old Halloween and Día de los Muertos–reverence for the dead, gratitude for one’s health and good fortune, and generosity towards others—all the year through.

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.