Samhain. Day of the Dead. All Saints' Day. Cultures around the world have honored their dead for centuries, and many of these cultural customs and traditions have passed down to us in the holiday we know as Halloween. But where did these traditions come from? How did Halloween come to be the holiday we know today?
Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was celebrated by early Celts around the first of November, marking the end of summer and beginning of winter, a transitional time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead were thin. The souls of the departed were free to wander the earth at this time, and it was customary to carve lanterns or scary faces on turnips (pumpkins being native to North America and not known to the Celts), light bonfires, and dress in animal costumes. Debatably, these practices were either to commemorate the dead or to ward off possession by ghosts.
All Hallows' Eve is the night leading into All Saints' Day. Designated as a holy day by the Christian church, All Saint's Day on November 1st is a feast day commemorating saints and martyrs. Originally celebrated around Easter time, it was moved it to coincide with other Christian commemorations around the same time, as well as the Celtic celebration of Samhain, by the 800's.
Día de los Muertos or "Day of the Dead" is a multi-day festival originating in Mexico, celebrated October 31st to November 2nd. Friends and family gather together in remembrance and respect for those who have passed, keeping them alive in memory and spirit. The lives of the departed are celebrated and they are welcomed by family and friends with food, flowers, and gifts. Traditional customs and symbols of the holiday include marigolds, skeletons and skulls, parades and dressing in costumes, food, and offerings.
Many modern Halloween practices are derived from older traditions as different cultures overlapped and mixed. Carving pumpkins, dressing in costumes, face paint, eating candy, bobbing for apples, and the iconic imagery of ghosts, devils, skeletons, and witches can all be traced back to these and other festivals and holy days commemorating our dearly departed. Discover more about Halloween and similar celebrations with your library card and PIN!
- Halloween, Samhain, All Souls' Day, Día de los Muertos, and other similar holidays in Holidays Symbols and Customs by Helene Henderson from Gale eBooks (formerly Gale Virtual Reference Library).
- Read all about "Halloween and Festivals of the Dead" in the Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays vol. 2, edited by Robert H. Griffin and Ann H. Shurgin, also in Gale eBooks.
- Look up even more info about Fall festivals in Explora and World Book Encyclopedia!