Oct 31: More Than Halloween

Oct 31: More Than Halloween

Dia de los Muertos

By Susan Goldberg

There is a hypothesis that most scientific discoveries are made independently by people who are widespread, but they make them at the same time in history. This usually applies to science, but I do think we have a case of spontaneous multiple cultural celebrations here. After all, the varied holidays of Samhain, Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, and Dia de los Muertos are all essentially harvest festivals. While Samhain, Halloween, and All Hallows’ Eve all developed in the Celtic lands, Dia de los Muertos was sprouting far away in the Mesoamerican regions occupied by the Aztecs.

While some ceremonies to honor the dead are dreary and sad, Dia de los Muertos is a joyous and sometimes irreverent tribute to loved ones who have passed. An altar is made, decorated in the Aztec way with bright marigolds, to lure the spirits back to the home of the living, with their vibrant color and fragrance. When the dead and living are all together, the love flows! It’s usual to set the ofrenda, which is the offering altar, with flowers, water, photos of the deceased, some of their favorite objects, and food. Later, the food is eaten by the family, and do expect a heaping platter of tamales too. Also, colorful sugar skull candy and pan de muertos, which is a sweet bread. Sometimes there is also a light (what we call) roast – the telling of jokes and teases to the loved one. All the joy they can muster up, they do.

So this is the ancient folk custom to pay homage to the dead in the heart of Mexico, created by the Aztecs and other ancient indigenous people of the region. Their Dia de los Muertors, the Mesoamerican version of All Hallows’ Eve. There are similarities, the most obvious being the decorating with skulls, skeletons, and other macabre symbols, some prepared as ghoulish candies. But you can’t help but notice that the Calaveras, those sugar skull candies, are beautiful. Bright colors and flowers decorate the skulls. Death isn’t so bad! Look what we have brought you in your afterlife!

In our particular region, Chicago and the western suburbs of Chciago, it’s natural to see a blending of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos as the Latino population here is 28.8%, enough to invite everyone to a celebration. Two skulls are better than one!

Cultures Mix

My adopted son Andy is of Mexican and Bolivian descent, and his sister Aline is married to a Cambodian man called Andrew. Since I spend so much time with them, I wondered: is Halloween celebrated in Cambodia? Turns out that it is, now. It’s becoming popular with young adults especially, and although they don’t celebrate with any religious, spiritual, or cultural tradition, they very much like having a holiday that’s just for dressing up in costumes. Scary, sexy, silly, doesn’t matter. They throw parties, carve pumpkins, and have scary movie marathons.

But their own “Festival of the Dead” is a 15-day festival in which the dead come back for food. It’s a much more serious affair, but it’s interesting to see our little cluster of harvest festivals has spread to regions of the world that have not celebrated in our particular way until recently. As for Aline and Andrew, they like to keep it simple for now. Their kids are little, and they’re trying to raise them as Latino Cambodian Americans, being fair and level. Will it just be a matter of time before Cambodian traditions merge with Celtic and Mesoamerican? And what else is on the horizon for a cultural mixup?

In any case, at this point we have at least four recognizable cultural events blending together, and in time perhaps, more will seep in. New traditions are being cultivated all the time. Comparing and sharing leads the way.

As for remembering the dead, I’d like to close with this beautiful poem by “Anonymous.”

Not How Did They Die, But How Did They Live

Not, how did they die, but how did they live?
Not what did they gain, but what did they give?

These are the units to measure the worth
Of a person as a person, regardless of their birth.
Nor what was their church, nor what was their creed?
But had they befriended those really in need?

Were they ever ready, with words of good cheer,
To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say,
But how many were sorry when they passed away?


More than Halloween

By Rowan Fixemer

As you’ve probably noticed, today is Halloween. Many of you know this is Samhain. It’s also All Hallows Eve, the prelude to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and then next two days mark Dia de los Muertos. Since Susan already shared with you about Dia de los Muertos, I’m going to focus on Eurocentric traditions that have brought us to the modern celebration of Halloween.

We often hear about pagan celebrations being co-opted by Christian traditions. While that is absolutely true, there is more to the story. Let’s start at the beginning with the Celts. We tend to think of the Celts as Irish and Scottish, but their reach extended throughout parts of Europe’s mainland, especially northern France.


These ancient Celts celebrated the turning of the year with eight major observances: two solstices, two equinoxes, and four fire festivals that occur between each of the sun festivals. Samhain (pronounced ‘Sah-win’) was the final and most important observance of the harvest season, for it wasn’t only the harvest the people recognized – it was when the world entered the darkest, coldest time of the year. Scarcity and illness loomed, darkness held sway, and summer would be a fleeting memory for months to come.

Samhain was celebrated over the course of three days. Harvests were brought in, cattle and crops sacrificed, bonfires burned, futures foretold, and villages protected from evil beings.

Evil beings?! Yes. The Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and dead thinned at this time of year, which was a mixed blessing. Ancestors’ spirits could cross over to visit family, but fairies could emerge from the Sidh – the mounds the fae lived under – and cause trouble, such as trying to kidnap the aforementioned ancestors. To prevent such dire situations, villagers would dress as monsters or animals to scare the fairies away while the family spirits found their way home. People also left offerings outside of the villages in hopes of keeping other troublesome spirits and monsters away.

Throughout these days, the people would complete the harvest. They came home to dark hearths, as they allowed their fires to go out during the harvest. Together with the Druids, they spun sparking wheels which created fresh fire for them to take to their homes. Some of the more intrepid villagers, often young women and girls, attempted fortune-telling at this time, which included trying to determine who they might wed. Since the veil was thin, they considered it the best opportunity to use divination, a practice which continues to this day. Only when all of the rituals and chores were complete would they be ready to face the cruelties of winter.

Samhain to Halloween

Samhain was a tradition wrapped in mystery and pragmatism. As such, it was the ideal start to the Celtic new year. It remained as such until, in the century before the first millennium of the common era, Romans invaded Celtic lands. Over four centuries of their rule, Romans rolled in two more festivals with Samhain. Feralia honored the dead, especially benevolent ancestors. The other was a celebration of Pomona, a goddess of trees and fruit. Many historians believe the practice of bobbing for apples originated with Pomona festivals, as the apple was her signature fruit.

Eventually, Rome fell and Christianity arose. The Church had similar observances, but they held them at other times of the year. It began with Pope Boniface IV. On May 13, 609 C.E., the pope dedicated the Pantheon in Rome as a Catholic Church. This also became the first All Martyrs Day, which eventually became All Saints Day to honor saints who did not have their own feast days. This brings us back around to Samhain.

It is believed that All Saints Day, also known as All-Hallows, was moved to November 1st sometime in the eighth century. All Souls day was added to November 2nd in the tenth century. All-Hallows Eve, the day before All-Hallows, would eventually become Halloween.

These special days used to be springtime observances, but moving hem to fall made it easier for the Church to merge them into pagan Samhain traditions, especially given the similarities in harvest timing and honoring the dead.

During this time, other traditions developed. A precursor to trick-or-treating may have been the practice of poor people earning food, usually in the form of “soul cakes,” from wealthy people in exchange for praying for souls assumed to be in Purgatory. Another way to earn food was through mummery, when people would dance, sing, or cavort in silly antics. In other words, they performed tricks to get their treats.

Halloween eventually arrived in the American colonies. Some colonial leadership, particularly in New England, did not care for the holiday. In Catholic colonies such as Maryland, Halloween thrived. Ghost stories, divination, and singing and dancing helped push Halloween to a more secular version by the 19th century. This was about the time that Irish immigrants brought an interesting story to North American shores.

Here’s a retelling of the story from OldSoulArtisan.com:

“Long ago in a small village in Ireland lived a drunkard named Stingy Jack. He wasn’t held in very high regard by the townsfolk. One evening, Satan overheard stories of the devious deeds of Jack and decided he must have this fellow’s soul. Jack may have been stingy, but he was quite clever. When Satan came to collect his soul, he successfully made the case that the least Satan could do was allow him to have a final drink at his favorite pub. After which, Stingy Jack left Satan on the hook for the tab. Jack suggested he turn himself into a coin to pay the bill and they would be off on their journey to the underworld. Satan was fooled when Jack took the coin and put it in his pocket alongside a crucifix, thereby trapping Satan in his pocket. The devil begged and pleaded, and only upon agreeing to leave Jack alone for ten years was he released.

“Exactly ten years later, Satan found Jack stumbling home from the pub. With a heavy sigh, Jack looked at the devil knowing full well that he intended to drag him to hell. Jack made the request of Satan to climb a nearby apple tree to get him a final snack to eat before the journey southbound. Satan, apparently still not as clever as Jack, climbed the apple tree. While Satan was climbing the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk, thereby trapping Satan up in the tree. The devil begged and pleaded, and only upon agreeing to never take Jack’s soul to hell was he released.

“Many years later, when Stingy Jack took his last breath and died, St. Peter refused him entrance into heaven for all his evil deeds. Satan refused him entrance into hell due to their contract. In one final parting gift, Satan gave Jack an ember ablaze with hellfire. Alas, Jack was stuck roaming the earth with only a carved turnip glowing with hellfire to light his way. When Stingy Jack ceased to be, Jack of the Lantern began. On Halloween night, keep an eye out for the restless wandering soul every time you see a Jack O’ Lantern, for it may just be the hellfire glow from Jack’s lantern.”

Throughout the 20th century, Halloween grew into a candy-manufacturer’s dream. Toilet paper manufacturers didn’t have much to complain about either, as young tricksters love to go out and TP trees. Egg producers surely get a bump in sales at about the same time. One must wonder how toilet paper shortages have affected Halloween antics this year and last year. Either way, it seems to have become a rite of passage for teens to go out and toss a few rolls in a rival’s or least favorite neighbor’s trees. Have you done this? I won’t tell if you don’t!

In recent decades, Samhain has been making a comeback through Wiccan and other Neopagan practices. Twenty-odd years ago, I began to celebrate Samhain alone, and then with a Chicago coven. Although I’m not much of a practicing pagan, it remains one of my favorite festivals. Maybe it’s the crisp autumn breezes, crunchy leaves, or it could be that I love seeing kids out trick-or-treating in sometimes dazzling and sometimes grungy costumes. Or maybe it’s the mystery that squeezes at my heart, and electric feeling in the air, or a sense that if I just reach a little further, I can pierce that veil myself for a hint of the future, or to touch the spirits of those who have passed.


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