by Richelle Kimble
Candy, costumes and parades. Ghouls, ghosts and goblins. These symbols have become iconic for the holiday that kicks off the autumnal celebrations, Halloween. Even with the renowned associations of the spooky evening, it turns out the roots of Halloween go much deeper than trick-or-treating. Halloween is often thought of as a one-day holiday; in reality, it evolved from a triduum called Hallowtide (deriving from halig, meaning saint, and tide, meaning season). In several cultures, the three days lasting from October 31 to November 2 are used to celebrate, recognize and remember the dead. The historical Roman Catholic, Mexican and Celtic cultures are three notable contributors to our westernized celebration of Halloween.
Roman Catholic Culture
All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Day
Tracing back to the legalization of Christianity in the first century, All Saints’ Day is observed by mainly Christian denominations. The day is a solemnity celebrated on the first of November (in some denominations it begins on the first Sunday after Pentecost). In catholic theology, the day commemorates those who have reached perfect salvation and direct communication. The day after commemorates those who have not reached a beatific vision and the departed faithful (All Souls’ Day).
All Souls’ Day
This day follows All Saints’ Day and stands as a day of prayer for the dead. Beliefs and practices vary in each denomination, but generally, it is associated with visits to cemeteries and prayer. The origin of All Souls’ Day can be traced back to European folklore and folk belief. In ancient Rome, Romans would perform rites to exorcise ghosts of the dead from their homes; the restless dead were conciliated with offerings of beans; and bells were ringed as an aid to cleansing. Creating light through means of fire or lantern was common, as well, to provide guidance for the souls of the dead.
The public worship, or liturgy, begins at vespers on the eve of All Saints’ day, thus making Halloween All Saints’ Eve or Hallows Eve.
The Day of the Dead
Celebrations of the dead can be traced back thousands of years in Mexican culture. This three-day celebration is broken up into distinct components similar to the Roman triduum: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. On All Hallows’ Eve, the angelitos, or spirits of dead children, are welcomed to visit with the presence of a children’s alter. On All Saints’ Day, the adult spirits are invited to visit, and on All Souls’ Day, families visit cemeteries to be with the departed souls, build private alters called ofrendas and decorate with photos and memorabilia. By encouraging the souls to visit, prayers are heard, and offerings are accepted.
Giant skulls, sugar skulls, shrines, decorated rabbits, poems and dancing with colorful costumes and devil masks in the town center are all notable contributions to the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos. Many believe that possessing these items and taking part in celebration can bring good luck and peace to their home.
In ancient Gaelic culture, the celebration of a concluded harvest season and the beginning of winter (or, the darker half of the year) was called a Samhain. Being halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, the festival began at sunset of the last day in October and lasted until sunset of November 1. Celtic history denotes this time period, just as Beltane is (the festival between the spring equinox and the summer solstice), as a liminal period for the spirits, or aos sí, to enter our world. This overlap between the living and dead stirred concern that the deceased would cause havoc to crops and health, thus making propitiation an active event in Samhain.
Bonfires were seen as cleansing and protective from the spirits, while costumes were thought to be a disguise from the spirits or to appease them. During guising (similar to modern day trick-or-treating), costumed individuals would travel door-to-door asking for food in exchange of a recited verse. Divination and feasting rituals were critical components of this Irish festival, as well.
Hallows Evening eventually contracted to Hallowe’en and now Halloween. With such rich backgrounds, the now westernized holiday has taken several turns. While Halloween is still widely recognized as Hallows Eve for Christian denominations, a more secular approach has become popular. Trick-or-treating has spread beyond the U.S. and can be seen in countries across the world. Perhaps this year you can recognize festivities as an opportunity to celebrate those you have lost in honor
of a renowned holiday of antiquity.