As today is Halloween I thought it might be interesting to look at the origins of this ancient festival. Halloween, as we know it, was originally a harvest festival, celebrated on the last day of the Celtic year – Samhain. On this day, the Celtic tribes took a stock-take of their livestock; they mated the ewes for lambing in the spring, and slaughtered any surplus animals, offering some of them as a sacrifice to their gods. This was the time of year that the spirits of the dead returned to their former homes, and the boundary between this world and the next became indistinct.
On the night of Halloween it was believed that the souls of the dead walked through the towns and villages, so bonfires were lit and gifts were left out for the dead to ensure a good and plentiful harvest the following year. The Christians adopted and transformed this pagan festival; they celebrated All Saints Day on November 1st a day when they encouraged pagans to take up the Christian faith.
The idea of celebrating the souls of the dead occurs in several other cultures, with one of the most interesting being Los Dias de los Muertos (the days of the dead) celebrated in Mexico, and now one of Mexico’s most important holidays.
This festival lasts from October 31st to November 2nd, mainly in the states south of Mexico City, and stems from an ancient celebration with origins well over 3000 years old. The Mayans and Aztecs believed that death was just a continuation of life, and remembering loved ones who had died should be a joyful occasion. You should celebrate the lives of friends and relatives you have lost instead of mourning the fact that they are no longer with you. The Aztec’s Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl, taught that the deceased preferred to be celebrated rather than mourned, so this is exactly what they did. They also believed that the spirits of their relatives would return as hummingbirds or butterflies.
This does seem a bit difficult to start with, as obviously we would all much prefer it if those friends and relatives were with us today. But when you think about it, it’s a much better way to deal with the loss of a loved one – to celebrate their life and to remember the good times, much as we did at Russell Fest earlier this year.
So, what happens?
At midnight on 31st October, the gates of Heaven are opened, and all the dead children (angelitos) are allowed out to visit their families for 24 hours. On the following day, adults are also allowed to leave Heaven to visit loved ones. The days are full of laughter and celebration; candles are lit for the departed, and children carry yellow marigolds to place on altars (ofrendas) in their homes. The brief lifespan of the flowers symbolises the shortness of all life. Families sit in the graveyards all night; they decorate the graves with photographs of their loved ones, they tell stories and eat the favourite foods of their relatives, musicians play favourite songs and there is singing and dancing. Again, not that dissimilar to Russell Fest. One of the main traditions is the decorating of sugar skulls (Calaveras) with bright colours and the name of the person being remembered. These skulls are also something for the visiting spirits to eat.
The Aztec festival was celebrated in July and August, during the 9th month of the Aztec calendar, and lasted for the whole month. The festival was moved to the autumn after the Spanish conquistadors arrived and encouraged the local people adopt Christianity.
Eastern cultures also have their celebrations for the dead. In Japan the festival is called Obon or Festival of the Lanterns; it is celebrated in August and is also a time when the souls of the dead return to the land of the living. People celebrate this holiday with special food for their ancestors’ spirits, which is placed on altars in temples and homes. At sunset, families hang paper lanterns outside their houses to help the spirits find their way home. The celebration ends with paper lanterns lit by candles floating down the rivers and out to sea to guide the spirits back to the realm of the dead until next year.
Cambodian Buddhists celebrate Pak Ben in September. For 14 days the people wake before dawn and prepare offerings of food and other gifts to the monks in the local pagoda and to their ancestors. On the 15th day they visit the pagoda with offerings of sweet sticky rice and beans wrapped in banana leaves. This marks the end of Pak Ben and the start of P’chum Ben, the Festival of the Dead. Again, food is brought to temples and pagodas as offerings for relatives who have passed on, everyone wears their best clothes and families get together to tell stories and celebrate the lives of their loved ones.
To me, Halloween looks like a pretty good festival to celebrate. Especially as it’s just after the anniversary of planting Russell’s Tree. I like the idea of celebrating the happy memories with stories, and favourite food and drink, and of course, not forgetting the music, which was such a large part of Russell’s life.
So, this evening – Oasis on the stereo, a large pizza, chicken madras, a couple of Red Stripe beers, followed by a Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell, with lashings of tomato ketchup (not all on the same plate!).
And a lantern under the tree.
Listen to our spooky playlist for Halloween.