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Halloween Time

Samhain, All Saints, Los Dios de Las Muertes

by Barbara Laufersweiler

Halloween, October 31, used to be called All Hallows' (or holy ones') Eve. In pre-Christian Celtic places (Britain and northwestern France) it was a night to remember the dead and be concerned that they are returning to walk among us during this night. Halloween evolved from the very old Celtic new-year festival of Samhain with some elements of a Roman autumn festival.

In current popular thought Samhain/Halloween is considered a witches' night, though that doesn't quite fit with the origins of the festival. It was certainly a night when people took care to be safe from, and even frighten away, the spirits of the dead that might want to hurt or bother them.

The Christian church did what it could with this festival in the Celtic regions, though it wasn't too effective. In the ninth century, the Church named the next day All Hallows' Day (and Samhain became All Hallows' Eve).

November 1 is still All Saints' Day, a day of acknowledging those Christians who have died who are considered saints of the Church. From St. Matthew to St. Augustine, St. Cecelia to St. Teresa of Avila, the saints are people whose lives showed us something of God. All Saints' Day is in the company of Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas as one of seven major festival days of the Christian year.

Some centuries later the Christian church named November 2 All Souls' Day, a time to remember all who have died. Christians who have died are now in some unknowable way alive and with Christ. They are remembered especially on All Souls' Day.

In Spain, Latin America, and Hispanic-American communities, the days October 31 through November 2 are los Dios de las Muertes, the Days of the Dead.

This is another very old celebration of the dead -- with parties and fun rather than warding off spirits -- that the Christian church molded somewhat but couldn't change significantly. The Days of the Dead were typically celebrated earlier in the year, but now coincide with All Saints' and All Souls' days due to pressure from the Church.

Los Dios de las Muertes traditions include plentiful representations of skulls and skeletons in decorations and food, and visits to family graves to clean and decorate them. The focus is on joyfully remembering family members who have died.

November 1, La Dia de los Angelitos or de los Niños, is for children who have died. On November 2, La Dia de los Difuntos, or Todos Santos, the adults who have died are remembered, and people visit family graves.

From Samhain and Halloween to All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, and Los Dios de las Muertes, the traditions of these late October and early November days acknowledge death and the dead as part of everyday life.

Barbara Laufersweiler is an at-home mom, an Episcopalian, and the creator of Faith at Home,, a Web site offering help to parents as they explore and enjoy faith with their children. Copyright © 2001 Barbara K. Laufersweiler. All rights reserved.





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Copyright © 2003 Barbara Laufersweiler
Last updated September 13, 2003


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