Halloween, the Seasonal Gateway Between the Living and the Dead

The arrival of Autumn seems to prompt a frenzy of excitement for the night of ghastly decorations, loads of candy, and a chance to be someone or something different. 

People feverishly wrack their brains to construct the most unique, creative, or frightening prize-winning costuming while clearing the shelves at their local Halloween shop.

With celebratory events in full swing, do any of us choose to inquire about the origins of this jubilee of junk food and jolts?   

Celebrating the Dead

Most of us have questions about what happens when we die. Where do people go when they die? How should the living mourn their loss? And is there a way to communicate with our dearly departed? A typical death theory is that some of the dead find their way to eternal bliss while others linger.

Reserving time to cope with, and cherish and honor our departed loves ones ritualistically is an ancient tradition practiced over thousands of years by numerous civilizations and countries.

China and Mexico are globally known for hosting festivities associated with revering and attempting communication with those laid to rest. 

Celebrated in a variety of ways, China’s Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day falls on April 4th or 5th, with most people engaging in freshening up, repairing, and performing general upkeep of their ancestor’s tomb. Food, tea, and comfort items that once belonged to the deceased are offered up and placed around the grave. 

Other popular Qingming Festival activities include Spring family outings for wellness and kite flying. Flying a kite and cutting the string with an attached lantern is believed to clear any misfortunes or negativity from one’s life. 

Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrates the living, welcoming back dead souls in a celebration of food and drink that dates back 3000 years to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. People hold large parades during festivities and commonly dress like skeletons with colorful makeup or skull masks, sing, dance, and eat candy. 

Families spend time at the final resting place of their loved ones or build shrines at home in their honor and prepare meals, mainly tamales, bring flowers, and even toys for deceased children. They enjoy each other’s company, reminisce, and tell stories about the late person.    

Day of the Dead and the Catholic-based All Saints Day immediately follow Halloween festivities and are observed on November 1, with another Catholic event, All Souls Day on November 2. Often referred to as the same holiday, there is a slight nuance between All Saints Day and All Souls Day. 

On All Saints Day, Catholics commemorate only those who achieved Sainthood in Heaven, with prayers sent to all the dead, including those entangled in the in-between, on All Souls Day. These solemn days are compulsory, and practicing Catholics are expected to attend Church. 


Unbeknownst to many, most holidays that we celebrate have descended from Pagan customs, including our beloved Halloween. The Pagan-Celtic celebration, known as Samhain, morphed into modern-day Halloween.

Samhain pronounced Sa-win, festivities established the end of Summer, the end of the harvest season, and the winter solstice's arrival. Villagers gathered plenty of supplies for the dark times ahead. Celebrated October 31, the Celts believed circumstances are prime for living to comingle with otherworldly inhabitants during this time of year.

Over time, many details of ancient Samhain festivals disappeared or found their way lost in translation following Christianity's rise. Christians of the day disparaged the Pagan holiday, believing it was a festival to worship the god Samhain.  

According to existing documentation, historic festivities lasted anywhere from three to six days with an expectation of imbibing and all-out ravenous behavior.

Celebrants and Druid priests lit massive bonfires to burn the bones of sacrificed cattle along with wheels of fire to symbolize the sun. For those who refused to engage in the party, the gods would unleash a wrath of plague and death. 

During the middle ages, bonfires served a different purpose. Farm owners set fires to protect their properties from nether-worldly creatures such as fairies. At this time the Jack-O-Lanterns first made an appearance not as our carved pumpkins but as turnips. 



All were invited to these massive merriment presentations, the living, the dead, and the mythical. Those with breath still in their bodies would greet their dead kinspeople and dress up as animals to keep away from the shenanigans played by elves and fairies.

Monsters of sorts would make an appearance. Headless horse riders considered a prognostication of death, would frighten those they encountered, and shape-shifting beings would come to accept offerings.  

Halloween, Present Day

As Christianity became more ubiquitous, British Christians who arrived in the Americas refused to partake in past Pagan rituals. It wasn't until the arrival of Irish Immigrants in the 1800s that aspects of the Samhain holiday made it to our shores. 

With the potato famine in Ireland, the Irish migrated to America to seek work opportunities, all the while importing their beliefs and traditions.

To celebrate their dead in Ireland, people would put on costumes, roam the streets knocking on doors for sweets, and singing songs for the dead. The wanderers would carry carved out turnips with candles, or Jack-O-Lanterns, named after the drunk character, Stingy Jack, of old Irish folklore, to help them see in the dark.  

In 1914 a woman by the name of Elizabeth Krebs put together the first Halloween costume party. After years of having her land targeted by vandals running the streets in masks, Krebs decided to organize a giant party for the youth with music, food, and drinks and urged everyone to dress up. Instead of defacing property, everyone joined in and had fun. 

Without the folktales, beliefs, and blending of various traditions of the past, we would all suffer from a bad case of ennui. The next time you attend a bonfire, Halloween party, or go Trick-or-Treating, take time to consider the events of the ancient past and leave out an offering for a lost loved one.

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