Halloween is one of the world’s oldest Holidays and is celebrated around the world. For us here in the states it is a night of dressing up and going door to door to collect treats. But for many cultures it is a time to acknowledge the departed, prepare for the isolation of winter and reflect on past deeds.
Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.
The Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, October 31, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, the Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals were sacrificed to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins. When the celebration was over, they lit the hearth fires in their home with flames from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Among Spanish-speaking nations, Halloween is known as “El Dia de los Muertos.” It is a joyous and happy holiday…a time to remember friends and family who have died. Officially commemorated on November 2 (All Souls’ Day), the three-day celebration actually begins on the evening of October 31. Designed to honor the dead who are believed to return to their homes on Halloween, many families construct an altar in their home and frequently, a basin and towel are left out in order that the spirit can wash prior to indulging in a laden feast.
In Czechoslovakia, chairs are placed by the fireside on Halloween night. There is one chair for each living family member and one for each family member’s spirit.
People who deal with death every day, professional caregivers such as hospice, palliative nurses, grief counselor’s, clergy and medical practitioners have long understood the importance of remembrance. It is an established principle that helps heal, so we can go on living our lives in meaningful ways.
Wherever you live, whatever your beliefs, it is always good to remember those you loved who have passed. For as the author Terry Pratchett said, “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”