(WWTI) — On October 31 every year we celebrate Halloween, which is made up of a few different holidays; Samhain Festival, Día de Los Muertos, and All Souls Day.
The festival of Samhain was celebrated throughout the Ancient Celtic communities in Europe and probably pre-dated the arrival of Celts in Ireland about 2500 years ago, with evidence at the Mound of the Hostages dating back 5000 years. The festival lasted about three days and started at dusk around Oct. 31.
Samhain was thought to be the Celtic New Year ushering in the darker half of the year. The festival was important for making winter preparations, harvesting crops and either sacrificing animals or lodging them for the winter. It was a sacred time of year when Ancient Celts settled important business matters, such as:
- Inaugurated new kings;
- Repaid debts; and
- Held trials for heinous crimes, where punishments were handed out accordingly.
At the beginning of the festival, all fires would be put out and re-lit from a bonfire made by druids, Celtic priests, where animal sacrifices were burned. Historians believe these festivals, abundant in food and alcohol, were held to celebrate the harvest by sacrificing animals, dancing and wearing costumes made of animal skins.
During this opportune time of year, druids would practice divination, fortune telling, because they believed the veil connecting to the ‘Otherworld’ would become weaker, allowing spirits and fairies to pass freely into the human world.
Apples would be used for fortune telling during this time, such as:
- ‘Dunking for apples’ to bring good fortune to the winner the following year;
- Throwing apple peals over the shoulder to reveal the first letter of their future husband’s name; and
- Mirrors would reveal the image of a lover if they ate apples while brushing their hair in front of it.
During this time, fairies and spirits would pass into our world through ‘in-between’ times and places:
- Borders between territories;
- Places where land and water meet;
- Winter and summer;
- Dawn and twilight;
- Crossroads; and
Samhain was considered the one time of year when you could win back relatives that were captured by fairies. ‘Dumb Supper‘ was a traditional practices where they would serve food and drinks at the head of the table to an empty chair in order to appease dead ancestors, caution had to be taken not to look directly at the seat because seeing the dead would bring misfortune.
Samhain was a night of the Great Sabbath for witches where they would gather to celebrate, prophesize, and cast spells. Tradition says that they could be seen flying on broomsticks and eggshells or riding black cats, ravens or horses. In 19th century, when Irish relocated to America, Samhain traditions came with them.
Día de Los Muertos:
Día de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, is currently a Mexican holiday going back about 3000 years to the Aztecs and other Nahua people who lived in what is now Central Mexico. The holiday is celebrated at midnight on Oct. 31 for the spirits of children and on Nov. 2 for adult spirits. Aztec and Nahua people held rituals honoring the dead and saw death as an ever-present part of life.
The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl, goddess of death, who was said to have been sacrificed as a baby and grew to adulthood in the underworld where she married Mictlantecuhtli, ruling the underworld together. According to myth, they would collect bones to return to the land of the living. Aztecs would appease these underworld gods by leaving food and precious objects with the dead. This month-long celebration is believed by historians to include burning incense, song and dance and blood sacrifice.
These rituals were traditionally held around August and provided deceased family members with food, water and tools to help along their difficult journey. It is believed that upon dying, a person would travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, and after passing nine levels over several years, a person’s soul could reach Mictlán, the final resting place.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores brought traditions of bringing wine and spirit bread to graves while covering them with flowers and candles to light the soul’s way to their home on Earth.
Contemporary celebrations follow in the footsteps of the past by leaving food and other offerings on graves, these offerings can be decorated with candles and marigolds, the sweet smell of the flowers is said to awaken the dead.
On Día de Los Muertos the boundary between the spirit world and the real-world dissolves. The living family members treat the deceased as honored guests, who are believed to awaken and return to our world to feast, drink, dance and play music.
20th-century printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada’s La Calavera Catrina, Elegant Skull, was adapted into the holiday as one of the most recognizable icons. It depicts a female skeleton adorned with makeup and dressed in fancy clothes.
The holiday was added to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
All Souls Day:
All Souls Day is a Catholic holiday started by St. Odilo of Cluny at his abbey of Cluny in 998, it takes place on Nov. 2 in most of the western world.
The holiday is a holy day for honoring the dead, it is primarily a Catholic holiday and is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and a few other denominations of Christianity. Catholics believe that the soul of a person can go to Heaven, the Netherworld or Purgatory.
Purgatory is thought to be a place where people who are free of mortal sin but still have lesser sins will go. It is believed to be important for the soul to be cleansed and perfected before entering heaven. Catholic belief dictates that through the prayers of the living the dead in purgatory are cleansed and able to enter heaven.
According to legend, the origin of All Souls Day is given by Peter Damiani in his “Life of St Odilo” where a pilgrim meets a hermit after landing on a deserted island after a storm. The hermit informed him of a chasm communicating with Purgatory where continuous groans of tortured souls could be heard. The hermit continues to tell of demons complaining about the efficiency of prayers to help rescue the victims of Purgatory from the faithful and the monks of Cluny in particular. After the abbot of Cluny heard the pilgrim’s story, he set Nov. 2 as a day of intercession on the part of his community for all the souls in Purgatory.
Today Halloween includes decorating our houses, trick or treating, scary movies, carving pumpkins and wearing costumes. It memorializes the past versions of the holiday while allowing for modernization and combination.