Traditional Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ altar for family member, Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo: Laura Winfree
Traditional Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ altar for family member, Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo: Laura Winfree

By Teena Clipston —

I grew up celebrating Halloween, and, like many other children, never understanding the meaning of the day. All I knew was I was getting candy, and if I had the stamina to walk for blocks in the cold, it could very well mean lots of candy. Now in those days, we kept things rather simple: with an old, white sheet we could be a ghost or a mummy… with old tattered clothes we could be a hobo… a cardboard box and we could be a walking TV. We would carve a pumpkin and stick a candle in it, and use an old pillow case to collect our loot. Simple. Profitable. And lots of fun.

But as I grew older, Halloween began to change and so did my views on it. I didn’t understand the concept, or the worship of evil dead things, and I thought perhaps the whole affair was some type of devilish trick to entice innocent children into wickedness. In addition, the whole commercialism of the festivity seemed to be intensifying. I just could not justify spending large amounts of hard-earned dollars on plastic horrors… plastic spiders, plastic headless dead things, plastic skeletons, plastic tombstones, plastic masks, plastic costumes, and the worst—plastic pumpkins—all of which, I could probably guess were made in China. My green personality cringed at the thought of someone cramming all that plastic into an attic every year. And the vision of the dead plastic beings squeezed up against a plastic Christmas tree, a plastic baby Jesus, and a plastic Virgin Mary sent chills down my spine. Now that was scary. And, of course, ironic.

In walks Hollywood, promoting horror flicks prior and during Halloween observations, with countless of slasher films and monster mania. The most successful of the movies to promote Halloween terror is the American horror franchise, Halloween, consisting of 10 slasher films, and novels and comic books. The fictional character of Michael Myers stalks and kills people during the Halloween holiday. With the abundance of receiving treats and the overtone of slashers, devils, and monsters, how could the coming generation see Halloween as anything other than a time of want and fear?

Now don’t get me wrong: I was not about to deprive my children of the Halloween experience. They enjoyed the celebration in the same manner I did as a child, with home made costumes and a real pumpkin. Begrudgingly, I went along with it, cursing my own self for part taking in the paganistic ritual, until I learned the true meaning of why Halloween is celebrated.

The word Halloween means “Holy Evening.” It comes from the Scottish term, All Hallows’ Eve. Halloween falls on the evening before the Christian holy days of All Saints (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). These three days are collectively referred to as Hallowtide. It was a time meant for honoring the saints and praying for recently departed souls. By the end of the 12th century the church began new traditions. The town criers would set afoot empty streets, dressed in black and ringing bells to call upon Christians to remember the deceased. It was also folklore that the souls of the departed would wander the earth during Hallowtide for one last chance to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the afterworld. However, this was not instituted until around 750 AD, in Europe. Before then, Halloween came from a pre-Christian Celtic festival known as Samhain. The pagan rite was dedicated to the harvest. It was said during Samhain banshees and witches were known to steal children and destroy crops, bringing terror to the population.

And yet, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the practice of “trick or treating” came to North America. The tradition already existed in Scotland, Great Britain, and Ireland during Hallows’ Eve in the form of “souling” where children and the poor would sing for the dead in return for sweets or coins. The celebration in the west, morphed into a “trick or treat”—give me a treat or I will play a trick on you—sacrament that brought with it a taste of paganistic terror.

Immigration to North America may have brought these trick or treat traditions with them. However it is not to say that the practice of honoring the dead did not exist prior to these settlements in the continent.

In fact, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), is a common holiday celebrated in many countries across the globe that existed in North America before European immigration. It is similar to All Hallows’ Eve; however, it is more of a happy celebration than a sad mourning. Mexico, for instance, joyously celebrates the holiday by remembering friends and family members who have passed on. It is believed that the deceased loved ones are given back to families and friends during this time—they are sometimes even set a place at the dinner table and parties are thrown with a great feast, drinking, and dancing. It is traditional for people to build private altars in their homes honouring the deceased. These may include photos of the dead, sugar skulls or similar treats, flowers, favorite foods, of the deceased, crafts, and more.

And yet, even in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos has become a melting pot of traditional rite. Before the Spanish invasion of 1519, the Aztecs held a festival for at least 3,000 years celebrating the death of their ancestors. They honoured the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, and would celebrate for 20 days during the corn harvests for the entire ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which begins at the end of July. The Spanish conquerors, wishing to eradicate any and all of the rituals of the Aztec people, failed at wiping out the festival all together. They succeeded, however, in shortening the length of the celebration and adjusted the time of celebration to align with their own Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

So, apart from the “scare the wits out of people” ritual we see today in Canada and the US, history shows the holiday is deeply rooted in the celebration of the past lives of our loved ones, and how we celebrate the time is a personal one. I, for one, will be celebrating the lives of family members that have passed, with perhaps a bowl of candy and chocolate.

Teena Clipston is a published writer, with 100’s of articles on the internet, in news papers, and in magazines. Clipston obtained her journalism diploma in 1995, and has worked in publishing and as a journalist for over 20 years.


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