For lots of people, the end of October and beginning of November is a time of year to think about the dead. The origins of Halloween, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day show that humans feel a basic need to remember friends and family who’ve passed away. We may dress it up with makeup, rituals, candy or costumes. But a theme of respect and remembrance is there for anyone who cares to look.
Centuries ago, the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain is where Halloween began. A pagan gathering, regularly celebrated on the last day of October, officially ended the summer. It also began harvest season and called on participants to prepare for winter, which was just around the corner.
Celts believed in the supernatural. They felt the souls of the dead on this day more than any other. Celtic priests, or Druids, called their pagan followers to rest from work. They built bonfires, held incantations and ate and drank all day.
People wore animal masks, danced and celebrated.
When the Roman Empire conquered Celtic land, they adopted the holiday and broadened it. Samhain remained a day to remember those who had died. They also created a second celebration to honor Pomona.
She was the Roman goddess of trees and fruit.
When Celtic and Catholic cultures merged, Samhain became All Hallows Eve and later Halloween. They kicked Pomona to the curb. Meanwhile, Catholic adherents joined pagans to dress in costumes and hold parades. Poor people visited wealthy families and promised to pray for the souls of their dead relatives. In return, the wealthy handed out pastries called soul cakes.
Children continued this tradition. In some areas they’d sing a song or tell a joke in exchange for fruit, nuts or money. By the 1950s, they called this “trick or treating” and the modern celebration became a fixed part of Western culture.
All Saints’ Day
All Saints’ Day is a solemn holy day observed around the world. The focus is to honor Catholic saints and attend mass. Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican churches also observe and reflect.
All Saints’ Day began with Pope Boniface IV on May 13 in 609 CE. This may have been a way to co-opt an already popular ritual, Samhain, similar to the way Catholics adopted trees and wreaths around Christmas and symbolic eggs around Easter.
In the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III made it official. He declared November 1st, the day after Halloween, a holy day of obligation dedicated to the saints and their relics.
After the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants retained this holiday. They didn’t feel the need to pray for the dead. But they did want a way to call attention to those who’d recently passed away. They especially wanted to remember those who lived lives of virtue and sacrifice.
Catholics today celebrate all those in heaven, including saints not officially recognized.
Customs vary depending on the country and culture.
In the United States, after an evening where children go trick-or-treating in costumes, eating candy and having fun, All Saints’ Day feels cleansing for some. After all, despite its history, Halloween is a secular holiday. So the next day is a more religious observation.
In western Europe, observers bring flowers to decorate the graves of family members. In eastern Europe, they prefer to light candles around cemeteries and graves.
Actors perform the play, Don Juan Tenorio and make offerings to the dead in Portugal, Spain and Mexico on All Saints’ Day. Loved ones paint graves and repair any cemetery damage in the Philippines.
All Souls Day
All Souls Day on November 2nd is to remember all the dead. Similar to All Saints’ Day, mostly Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a few protestant denominations observe.
In short, Catholics believe the souls of the dead go to one of three places.
- Heaven: This perfect state of being is filled with people who, while alive, lived in grace and communion with God.
- Hell: If someone dies with mortal sin on their soul, they are eternally condemned.
- Purgatory: Most people, those who tried their best but maybe committed lesser sins, wind up here. It’s not as awful a sentence as eternal damnation, but it isn’t heaven either. Souls in purgatory can atone and, in time, graduate to an eternity in heaven. The prayers of the living help further them along.
All Souls Day involves – among other things – praying for the dead. Especially those who need a little bit of help getting into heaven.
Día de los Muertos
Día De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a two-day holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd every year. It reunites the living with their dead relatives. Observers do not mourn. Rather, the mood is joyful and celebratory.
This began 3,000 years ago, with rituals honoring the dead in Mesoamerica. Aztecs and others living in what today is central Mexico saw death as an important part of daily life. This holiday lives on, not only in Mexico, but among those of Mexican descent everywhere.
Families create offerings on altars to honor family members who have passed away. This includes pictures of the relative and his/her/their favorite foods and drinks. Living participants sing or say prayers, while eating those foods and drinking together.
Hopefully, this encourages the loved one to visit and join in the fun.
Other popular symbols of Día De Los Muertos include calaveras and marigolds.
Calaveras are skulls with smiles. This symbolizes a funny, “laughing at death” kind of attitude. They are also depicted on sugar candies, face paintings and clay decorations. Sugar skulls are decorated and placed as offerings on the altars.
Marigolds, with their vibrant colors, are said to be pathways guiding the deceased to their corresponding altars and offerings.
Halloween, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day are opportunities to remember, mourn and celebrate those who’ve died. A sign that they’re never far from our thoughts and hearts.