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From Samhain to Day of the Dead: Celebrating Departed Ancestors Across the Globe

Whether it’s Halloween, All Saints’ Day, or Day of the Dead, the holidays celebrated during mid-autumn invite us to peek behind the veil of our physical world and connect with residents of the spirit world — especially our ancestors.

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So much of who we are is made up of those who came before us. The qualities and character traits we inherited from them were shaped in turn by the places and cultures they came from. The ancient cultures of Europe and other continents understood this, and incorporated practices that honor the dead into their celebration of the autumn harvest.

In the ancient Celtic culture of Ireland, this time of year was marked with a pagan religious festival called Samhain — a festival that eventually evolved into what we know today as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, or All Souls’ Day.

The festival of Samhain

Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) took place halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. It was the most significant of the 4 annual fire festivals in Celtic culture. Hearth fires were left to burn out while the family gathered the harvest, and when the time came to return home, the community would light one big fire using a friction wheel that represented the sun. Families would then use this fire to rekindle their own hearth fires. The festivities went on for 3 days and 3 nights and involved lots of feasting and drinking.

A Samhain celebration in modern-day Scotland

A Samhain celebration in modern-day Scotland

The Halloween tradition of dressing in costume and focusing on spirits and monsters comes from the ancient Celtic belief that during Samhain, the barrier dividing the physical world with the spirit world became more penetrable and allowed inhabitants of the Otherworld to enter. The Celts prepared offerings for fairies, or Sidhs, and dressed as animals and monsters to prevent the fairies from kidnapping them. A custom developed of going door to door and singing songs to the dead.

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church attempted to bring local pagans under their wing by adapting pagan holidays to align with Christianity. Samhain was “rebranded” as All Saints’ Day, a festival to celebrate the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church. The going-door-to-door tradition developed into “souling,” a practice where poor people would visit the homes of wealthier families and promise to pray for the souls of their dead relatives. In exchange, the families would give them a pastry called a soul cake. A similar practice continues to this day in Portugal and the Philippines.

Eventually, October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween. During the massive Irish immigration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Irish people carried their traditions across the Atlantic with them. That’s how Halloween came to be an American holiday — and it was the United States that introduced the modern version of Halloween to the rest of the world. Today, it’s becoming more common to celebrate Halloween in many countries all over the world where this holiday was previously unknown. 

In modern times, Halloween is celebrated in Ireland much like it is in the United States: children dress in costume and go “trick-or-treating,” going door to door and asking the neighbors for candy. For adults, there are parties and festivals, spooky decorations, and other special programming focusing on ghosts, spirits, and all things otherworldly.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in Western and Northern Europe

In other countries in Europe, there is much greater emphasis on the Christian version of Halloween: All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

In France, Spain, and Italy, All Saints’ Day is a public holiday where schools and public businesses are closed. Family members lay wreaths of flowers (traditionally chrysanthemums) on gravestones to honor the dead. Some Italian families set an extra place at the table for their deceased ancestors, or even have a festive meal by their graves. One Sicilian tradition is for children to leave their shoes outside, in hopes that the spirits of their ancestors will fill them with sweets.

La Toussaint (

La Toussaint (“All Saints’ Day”), a painting by Émile Friant depicting the holiday in France, 1888. [Public domain]

In Germany, All Saints’ Day is also a public holiday, and in some states, it’s categorized as a stiller Tag (a “silent day”), on which public dances and concerts are restricted. In Austria and Bavaria, there’s a custom for godparents to give their godchildren a special braided yeast pastry called Allerheiligenstriezel.

In Denmark and Norway, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are combined and celebrated on the first Sunday in November rather than November 1 and 2. Similarly, Sweden celebrates All Saints’ Day on the Saturday that falls between October 31 and November 6. The Netherlands also marks “All Saints’ Sunday” like Denmark and Norway, but there, it is not a public holiday and is observed mostly by religious Christians.

Day of the Dead

In contrast to the solemn or spooky atmosphere of All Saints’ and Halloween, Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is a joyful celebration of the lives of deceased relatives. Historians are split on whether this holiday originated in the ancient indigenous cultures of Mexico, or is a unique Mexican spin on the version of All Saints’ Day imported by the Europeans. In any case, today it has spread beyond the borders of Mexico and is celebrated in many Spanish-speaking countries as well as places with many people of Mexican heritage, such as the United States.

Typical Day of the Dead masks and decorations

Typical Day of the Dead masks and decorations

The way Day of the Dead is practiced varies widely from place to place, even within Mexico. Most celebrations include setting up altars, or ofrendas, to deceased relatives, containing photographs of the deceased, other memorabilia, and that person’s favorite foods and drinks, and decorated with flowers and calaveras (skulls). Festive meals are eaten by the living and offered to the dead. It is also traditional to visit cemeteries and decorate the gravestones of departed loved ones.

Guy Fawkes Day

Guy Fawkes Day is not directly related to Halloween, but it is celebrated this time of year in the United Kingdom, and also involves bonfires, masks, and an air of mystery. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic Englishman who was involved in a plot to blow up the Parliament in 1605. He was arrested on November 5 on the Julian calendar. To celebrate the fact that their king had been saved from attempted assassination, many Londoners lit bonfires around the city. This became established as a tradition in the U.K., and the resulting holiday usually eclipses Halloween and All Saints’ Day in importance in this part of the world. Guy Fawkes Day is usually celebrated on November 5 with bonfires (sometimes burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes, adorned with the signature mask with an upturned mustache and pointed beard) and firework displays. It’s also known as Bonfire Night.

Bonfire Night in Nottingham, U.K.

Bonfire Night in Nottingham, U.K.

Whatever mid-autumn holiday you celebrate, this is the perfect season to honor the memories of your ancestors, connect to your cultural heritage, and explore your family history.

Get started by exploring death records on MyHeritage — totally free to access for this week only (October 26–November 3, 2022)!

The post From Samhain to Day of the Dead: Celebrating Departed Ancestors Across the Globe appeared first on MyHeritage Blog.

Source: My Heritage

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