The Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead

Bob Books
28th October 2019

Autumn is celebrated differently in every culture, but the two most widely celebrated fall festivals are Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Although we currently celebrate these festivals with dressing up, carving pumpkins, visiting relatives that have passed on, it was not always done this way. Did you ever wonder how Halloween became so popular and what is the history behind the Day of the Dead?

Where did Halloween originate from?

Halloween was originally called the Festival of Samhain and was a Celtic celebration. The Celts, who lived about 2,000 years ago in what is now known as Ireland, the UK and parts of Northern France, used to celebrate their New Year November 1st. That date marked the end of the summer and the harvest, while winter, was generally associated with darkness, coldness and human death. 

The night before the new year was called “All Hallow’s Eve” and it was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the dead became one. To ward off the ghosts that came to haunt the living, Celts use to light bonfires and wear costumes, usually consisting of animals heads and skins. Among the dancing and the chanting that occurred this evening, Celts believed the presence of ghosts made it easier for Druids (Celtics priests) to make predictions about the future.

What about Halloween Activities?

Costumes

Celts used to dress up to ward off the ghosts and they made lanterns by hollowing out gourds, which then evolved into carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns.

Jack O Lanterns

The original Jack O'Lantern was not a pumpkin as these did not exist in Ireland. Celtics used to carve out turnips rutabagas, gourds, potatoes or beets and they place an ember in them, to ward off the evil spirits on Hallow’s Eve. In the 1800s, Irish immigrants who were based in the New World of America, discovered that pumpkins were larger and easier to carve out, hence why Jack O Lanterns are not pumpkins.

Apple Bobbing

Apple bobbing was a very popular fortune-telling game. When the Roman Empire conquered the major of Celtic territory, they combined some of their traditions with the celebration of Samhain. Apple bobbing was the combination and the celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and trees. This also became a game when it was believed that all apples would represent all of a woman's suitors. The apple that the single woman would end up biting into would supposedly represent her future husband.

Trick or Treat

In the Medieval Times, celebrations in still resembled the older Celtic commemorations of Samhain, but poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. This practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale.

Another means of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve included young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Instead of vowing to pray for the soul of the dead, they would perform a sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.

Clearly this tradition has evolved as children no longer receive fruits, nuts or coins, but the principle and the concept is still here.

What is the Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos in Spanish is one of the highlights of the Mexican festive calendar. Running from late October to early November, the holiday revolves around praying for, celebrating and remembering the dead, supporting them through their spiritual journey and into the beyond. Though the festival is not typically met with a large parade, the depiction of such in the James Bond film SPECTRE led to a Mexico City parade making its debut in 2016.

The culture surrounding Día de Muertos echoes the sentiment towards death in wider Mexican society, a stalwart acceptance that death is a natural part of life. Since 2008 the event has been recognised by UNESCO.

How did it start?

The roots of the holiday go back further than Mexico itself. A festival honouring the fallen could be seen in the Aztec culture of the late middle ages. Day of the Dead was initially celebrated in early summer, however the influence of the Spanish post-colonisation drew the festival closer to All-Saints Day in the middle of Autumn.

Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors had been observed by the Aztecs for thousands of years. The festivities were dedicated to a goddess known as the "Lady of the Dead”.

By the late 20th century in most regions of Mexico, practices had developed to honour dead children and infants on November 1, and to honour deceased adults on November 2. November 1 is generally referred to as Day of the Innocents, or Day of the Little Angels. November 2 is referred to as Day of the Dead.

How is it celebrated?

Visually, the festival is known for its Ofrendas, or offerings, altars are erected around the graves of lost loved ones, where food, beverages and memorabilia are placed. If a child has passed, then toys are brought as an Ofrenda, while adults are presented with bottles of liquor and delicacies.

For a long time, the Day of the Dead was not widely observed in northern Mexico, as the region had little Mesoamerican influence, however in the 1960s, the Mexican government began educating schoolchildren on the tradition, as a measure to unite the country culturally.

The Day of the Dead presents a unique and healthy perspective on death, something we can all learn and benefit from.

For more autumnial themed blogs have a read of our unique autumn traditions from around the world or how to make your own autumn themed photobook!