Halloween has turned into a fun and fright fest in the U.S., but this secular holiday roots and influences than go a lot deeper than candy, costumes and cavorting.
There’s a reason why Halloween revolves around the ideas of ghosts and death. The next time you’re off to a party or preparing for some trick-or-treaters, consider the spiritual side of this time of year.
The ancient Gauls and Celts of Northern Europe saw the year as having two halves: the light and the dark. This season was the beginning of the dark half— which was a scary time. Running out of food, firewood, a family member coming down with a cold, the house catching fire or snow caving in a roof could mean your entire family would be wiped out before spring.
People would celebrate the final harvest before heading indoors for the long, cold, dark season ahead. Watching the land seemingly die around them, and facing their own mortality in the coming struggle for survival, it’s no wonder they associated the season with death. Some cultures even believed the dead spirits walked the earth at this time of year.
Autumn continued its association with death with the spread of Christianity. It was seen as a time when “the veil” or “the boundaries” between the worlds of the living and dead were thin.
Thanks to a mixture of Roman and Celtic influences, the Catholic Church began celebrating the dead on November 1st. They call it All Soul’s Day, or All Hallows.
People believed the souls of the dearly departed were close and set a place for them at the table in case anyone visited. They would hold the meal in silence, and the tradition became known as the “dumb supper”.
They also left offerings outside the house and in crossroads because they believed evil spirits lurked— they wanted to appease these spirits and keep them from entering. It was a terribly frightening time. Observance of this time of year by both Pagans and Christians remained popular until the Protestant Reformation.
Though celebrations of spirits of the dead died down for a while in Europe after the 16th century, they picked up again in America with the rise of Victorian interests in occult and spiritualism.
One of the main activities from this time of year was divination, mainly through spirit communication. Instead of honoring the dead, the Victorians chose to take advantage of this prime season to connect with them and get answers about their lives and their futures.
The American Halloween became secularized with the onset of the 20th century, its religious roots left behind. A surge in the revival and reconstruction of Pagan religions started in Europe in the early 20th century, and within decades made its way across the pond to the United States.
Once again, after the candy and parties die down, you’ll find modern people honoring and making offerings to the spirits of the dead with reverence and respect.
Dia De Los Muertos
Over in Mexico, indigenous cultures had been holding festivals to honor ancestors for thousands of years. They believe spirits returned during this time of year. When the Spanish came over with the Catholic religion, many of the festivities blended with All Soul’s observances.
People in Mexico build elaborate altars in homes or at grave sites. They pile alcohol, food, tobacco and other offerings on them in honor of the dead. They hold special masses and blessings.
Most interestingly, instead of something to fear or shrink from, they greet death like an old friend and celebrate it as a natural part of life.