Today is Halloween, my absolute favorite day of the year.
I have always been fascinated by the macabre, interested in darkness, and intrigued by death.
I have found solace in hiding behind a mask, in personifying whomever I want to be for an evening, and by the sudden and temporary break in social decorum that comes along with trick or treating.
America is the epicenter of Halloween in the modern age. It has taken elements of harvest celebrations and traditions of honoring the dead from cultures all over the world and combined them into what now has become a mostly commercial holiday.
Despite this, I adore the holiday for its roots. We dress up, go trick or treating, carve pumpkins, and immerse ourselves in elements of the dead and the world beyond the veil today, putting us distantly in touch with generations of people before us.
Here are some of the roots of the modern American Halloween:
SAMHAIN: IRELAND, SCOTLAND
This is a nearly two thousand year old Celtic (pagan) festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season and welcomed in the beginning of winter, which marked the Celtic new year. This was believed to be the time when the veil between the world of the living and the “otherworld” was at its thinnest. It was often celebrated with bonfires and other festivities, including carving faces into turnips (the original jack o lantern) to ward off unwanted spirits.
ALL SAINTS DAY AND ALL SOULS DAY: CHRISTIANITY
Of course with the insurgence of Catholicism into the Celtic regions, the pagan holidays began to be changed and molded to fit the church. From this came All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd), which combined with what we know as Halloween (October 31st), is sometimes referred to as Hallowmas. The tradition of All Souls Day came to include leaving “soul cakes” out in front of homes, to feed and appease the spirits that may come to the door. Sometimes children would dress up (partly to slip among the spirits themselves unbothered) and “go a-souling”, or what we know today as trick or treating.
DIA DE (LOS) MUERTOS: MEXICO, SOUTH AMERICA
This is a celebration of the dead that is primarily associated with Mexico and some South American countries. From October 31st to November 2nd families pay respects to their deceased loved ones by building beautiful shrines in their memory, setting out offerings of food, and visiting the graves of their loved ones. This celebration has even deeper roots in an Aztec festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl— the Queen of the Underworld— but was also (like Samhain) later blended with Christian elements of All Saints Day.
BEGINNINGS IN AMERICA
Due to a massive immigration of people from Ireland into America, which was primarily caused by the Great Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, and the rise of Mysticism in America not long after, the tradition of Samhain and its Christian companions remained somewhat intact. In the early 20th century, Halloween began to rise into the consciousness of America. By the 1950s, the focus of Halloween shifted to children, making it a family holiday, and opening the door for the modern traditions of Halloween, which ironically have begun to make their way back across the Atlantic to Europe just in recent years.
One of the things I love so much about travel is that history is irrevocably tied to it. While visiting museums, castles, and medieval villages, there is an awareness of the history of the world and how it has created the world we live in today.
This year I am celebrating Halloween in France, next year, who knows where I will be.