Death Needs a Holiday
By Waverly Fitzgerald
At midnight on Halloween, I light candles to help the spirits find their way
back--and I feel surrounded by a radiance of love.
Look in your family photo album and what do you find? Pictures of graduations,
birthday parties, weddings and vacations. Photos taken during holidays
celebrating the new life of spring, the return of the sun in mid-winter, fruits
of the harvest.
Everyone is smiling, no matter how much tension lurks behind the pleasant
façade. Where are the images of break-ups, divorces, illnesses, and funerals?
These events shape us as much as, perhaps more than, the happier moments. But we
hide them away, preferring a story that life is all about joy.
That's why Halloween is so important: it is the only holiday that commemorates
death, offering us a rare opportunity to face the darkness. Not the darkness of
violence or evil, but the darkness that is part of the natural cycle: a chance
to accept endings, to mourn losses and to recognize our mortality.
A century ago, most people died at home and were laid out in the front parlor.
But now death is something we rarely witness, except the violent deaths depicted
on TV shows, in films and in crime novels. As a society, we cling to the myth of
perpetual summer, constant growth in the economy, and continuous improvement in
our personal lives. So when things go wrong, when we make mistakes, when we lose
someone dear to us, we see that as abnormal.
We confuse darkness with evil, and approach death with fear, thus the emphasis
in American celebrations of Halloween on demons and ghosts, the gory and the
grotesque. Yet death is as natural as life.
All cultures have a holiday when the dead are honored--in fact, most have more
than one: In Japan, the Obon festival in July; in China, the Moon of the Hungry
Ghosts; in ancient Rome, the ghosts of the ancestors were appeased during
Lemuria on May 9.
Today in America, we still have the secular holidays of Memorial Day and
Veteran's Day. But during my childhood, those perfunctory trips to the cemetery
to lay flowers on my grandfather's grave never caught my imagination the way
Halloween did, and still does. Underneath the disguises, trick-or-treating and
parties, the spiritual heart of the holiday is an acknowledgement of death.
Halloween is a complex blend of customs from many different cultures and
holidays. The oldest layer comes from the Celtic festival of
Samhain, (see end of article) which means
"summer's end." It was also the new year—-the Celts believed the year began in
darkness, just as the day began at dusk. It was a time when the crack between
this world and the Other World was open. Fires were left burning during the
night and people avoided walking in isolated places, for fear the fairies would
take them away. In Ireland, the whole month of November is devoted to the dead,
who hold their final dance on November 30.
In the seventh century, the Catholic Church established a holy day honoring All
Saints. At first celebrated in May (when the Romans held their feast of the
dead), it was later moved to November 1. Also known as
All Hallows Day, it's the source of the name Halloween (the eve of
Hallows). By the 10th century, the following day, November 2, was officially
designated as All Souls Day, when the faithful pray for the souls of their
The Cathars, who developed a unique Christianity that flourished in Southern
France until wiped out as heresy by 13th century Crusaders, believed that this
was the day when the souls of those who died during the year entered into a
place of rest. Before this day, they wandered around the earth, from church to
church. Angels chose from this flock those ready to be admitted. The living
could influence the selection by saying Masses for the dead, paying off their
debts and giving gifts to the poor.
This is similar to the English tradition of going from house to house,
gathering ingredients for soul-cakes. Sometimes these were left out for the poor
to eat, sometimes given to the priest to pay for Masses for the souls of the
dead, sometimes given to "sin-eaters," beggars who took on the sins of the dead.
Although the emphasis in the church was on praying to the saints (the holy dead)
and for the souls of those in purgatory, we can glimpse an earlier understanding
that this was a time that the dead returned to visit their families in the way
Italians celebrate I Morti. On the night of November 1, before they go to bed,
children set out letters they've written to their dead relatives, along with a
list of presents they want. The dead rise up from their graves and roam through
the streets, drifting like smoke into the stores, stealing sweets and toys to
leave as treats for the children. When the children wake up on November 2 they
search for these presents and shout out thanks to the ancestors when they find
When the Spaniards brought this Catholic holiday to Mexico in 1521, it went
through another colorful permutation to become Dias de Muertos. The indigenous
people of Mexico did not fear death like the European Christians for whom it was
a time of judgment. Instead, they viewed death as a
phase in a cyclic journey: to die was to wake from the dream of life.
The combination of the indigenous reverence for death with the Catholic holiday
produced a flowering of ritual and art in Mexico around this holiday. Vendors
sell skeletons made of papier mache and macabre toys, like clay skulls with
movable lower jaws or skeletons that dance on a string. Children beg for "a
funeral" or "a death" and are given treats like bones made of milk chocolate and
sugar skulls with maraschino cherries for eyes and grins of syrup and rows of
fine gold teeth, sometimes bearing their name.
The Days of the Dead are a time of reunion when people travel home. Altars are
set up in houses, and decorated with flowers, leaves, fruit, incense and
candles. Sometimes flower petals are scattered in a path from the altar to the
open door to guide the returning dead. Offerings to the dead of food and drink
are placed on the altar.
On the night of November 1, people gather in cemeteries and spend the night with
"the little dead ones." A priest might come and sprinkle the graves with holy
water. Candles burn on every grave, all decorated with offerings and flowers,
especially the marigold, the flower of the dead in Mexico. Sometimes bands
serenade the dead with songs and music. In other places, people dance.
Ever since my daughter brought home a miniature Days of the Dead altar from
elementary school, this has been my favorite way to celebrate Halloween. In the
last days of October, I set up photographs of my ancestors, friends and pets who
have died, surrounding them with candles, vases of flowers, and offerings of
food and drink they would enjoy (Fido gets a dog bone, the dead hamsters
carrots, my dad a shot of Irish whiskey).
When I'm home, I burn candles and incense. At midnight on Halloween, I light a
candle on each windowsill in my apartment, to help the spirits find their way
back. As I wander from room to room, checking on the candles, I feel surrounded
by soft fluttering, like the wings of doves, and a radiance of love.
This is the heart of Halloween. By remembering the dead, we keep them alive in
our hearts. By facing our own mortality, we taste the sweetness of life.
Beyond Buffy, Blair Witch, and 'Halloween'
Some frequently asked questions about Samhain and the pagans who
celebrate this holiday.
What is Samhain?
Samhain, commonly pronounced "sow-enn" (sow rhyming with cow) is said to
mean "summer's end" and is one of eight pagan sabbats, or holidays. It
is often considered the most important date in the pagan calendar, and
it marks the beginning of the spiritual year (although some pagans
celebrate the new year at another sabbat,
Samhain falls halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter
Solstice on October 31st. Many pagans begin their celebrations at
sundown on the 31st, and continue festivities through November 1st and
sometimes beyond. (In the southern hemisphere, where summer is just
beginning, pagans are celebrating Beltane.)
What is the meaning of the holiday?
Wiccans and other pagans believe their ancestors marked the end of the
harvest season and the coming of winter with ceremonies, feasts, and
other observances. Today, modern pagans reflect on the transition in
nature as well as in their own spiritual lives. As they look back in
remembrance, pagans honor their ancestors and people they have lost. At
the same time, they look ahead with renewed spirit for the coming year.
What is the connection with Halloween?
Many believe Halloween and Samhain share similar pagan roots going back
to pre-Christian Europe and possibly ancient Egypt.
some Christians have concerns about Halloween celebrations, and some
even want to
ban the holiday because of its association with paganism, not
everyone believes Halloween has pagan roots.
This Catholic priest believes American Halloween customs are
Christian in origin, as do
two new books on the history of Halloween.
What is Paganism?
What Is Paganism?
Wicca vs. Witchcraft
What Are Reconstructionist Religions?
The Neopagans vs. the Recons
On Being Called a Pagan
The word "paganism" does not refer to one specific religion, but is used
loosely as an umbrella term for a wide range of diverse religious
traditions -- from Wicca and Witchcraft to Reconstructionist Religions
such as Asatru. (Reconstructionists -- those who attempt to revive
ancient pre-Christian religions -- often prefer the word "heathen.")
Definitions of paganism are a hotly contested issue on Beliefnet's
discussion boards. Feel free to join the fray:
Are Pagans Satanic?
Contrary to popular stereotypes and misconceptions, modern pagans do not
worship the devil, hold ritual orgies, cast "evil" spells, or practice
(For their part,
Satanists maintain that even their religion has nothing to do with
worshipping the devil.)
How do Pagans celebrate Samhain?
The celebrations for Samhain are as individualistic as pagans
themselves. Activities range from solitary, reflective walks in the
ancestor rituals, to community feasts.
The Witches' Voice for Samhain events in your area.
* * *
Religion & Ethics (BBC)
"A Brief History of Hallowe'en" by Peg Aloi (The Witches' Voice)
"A Pagan Primer" (The Cauldron)
"Halloween: Facts and Misinformation" (ReligiousTolerance.org)
Norse Holidays and Festivals
Pagan Holidays (The Cauldron)