October 31st, the day many know as Halloween, is the first night in a three-day celebration honoring the dearly departed. Many people know that Halloween draws its name from the original All Hallows Even (or All Hallows Eve); however, its true origin lies much further back in the Celtic holiday Samhain. Marking the final night of the Celtic calendar, it represents the last night of the harvest and the transition from the light half of the year to the darker half. The Celtic people believed that on this night, a time in which plants began to wither and die and animals were slaughtered to provide food for the coming winter, the veil the separates the living from the dead became thin, allowing those who have passed on to walk among us. Oftentimes people would gather together in the village for a feast, building a great bonfire and celebrating as one. It was customary to leave milk or food out for the returned spirits to appease them, as there was a threat of being abducted by fairies or dark spirits during that evening. People sometimes even dressed up to avoid notice, starting a tradition that we still practice today.
Samhain celebrations began on October 31st and lasted all the way through the following day. This coincides with All Saints Day, celebrated on November 1st, the second day honoring the dead. For Catholics it is a holy day of the Church honoring all saints, known and unknown, who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. It is also known as All Hallows or Hallowmas, ‘hallows’ meaning to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or venerate. While All Saints Day focuses on the dead that have reached Heaven, the following day, known as All Souls Day, shifts our focus to Purgatory. It is a day to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory undergoing purification of their sins before entering heaven. Either praying for saints or sinners, these first nights in November are set aside to remind us of those who have passed and honor our dead.
Last but not least, November 2nd is known in the Hispanic culture as the Day or the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos. Despite its focus on those we’ve lost, it’s considered a day of celebration. It is a time for reminiscing about happy memories of those who are no longer with us, and encouraging visits from their departed souls. Alters or shrines are sometimes built, and houses are filled with candles and mountains of food and offerings for the dead. The day is often celebrated with bright colors and sugary treats in the shape of skulls, merrily concluding the three-day celebration of the dead.
This remembrance of the dead is an interesting mixture of the pagan, spiritual, and the religious, an amalgamation which blends different beliefs from across the globe. Whether acting as a reminder to lead a more spiritual life or a way to honor those we’ve lost, October 31st through November 2nd is a special time in which the chasm between the living and the dead fissures and cracks, allowing departed spirits, at least for a short time, to walk among us.