Samhain. Halloween. All Saints Day. All Souls Day. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
All of these holidays are about the connection between the living and the dead. And they all present the dead in different ways. Taking a look at these differences...
Samhain. Halloween. All Saints Day. All Souls Day. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
All of these holidays are about the connection between the living and the dead. And they all present the dead in different ways. Taking a look at these differences can be a fun way to think about where we get our concepts about death and how our loved ones might relate to us after we die.
shown below: a handpainted Dia de los Muertos character styled after La Calavera Catrina
When I was young, one of my little brother’s friends lived in a house with a dusty and dirty basement. A few of us from the neighborhood decided to get together and turn it into a haunted house. I had been reading up on theatrical tricks and decided to max out what I knew. I created a false wall that someone could jump out of, and dressed up my neighbor in tattered clothing with a good amount of fake blood. It looked soooo awesome! And it was really effective. So effective that we terrified my neighbor’s cousin to the point of hyperventilating and the haunted house was shut down by his parents. I was pretty bummed about that. I was also really proud that we could make something that scary. Ah, Halloween. Such a fun night for the undead!
Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. You will too. So let's all learn what we need to do and make some key decisions before we die, in order to be kinder to those we'll leave behind. I believe we should write these decisions down and collect them into one place, what I call a Death Binder. You can get a template for your own Death Binder and more at my website: DyingKindness.com. On behalf of the people who love you, I thank you for taking care of them by thinking ahead. And now, on with the show.
It’s the end of October and it’s the one time that images of dead people start appearing on homes, in shop windows – even in ads for children’s toys! I’m talking, of course, about Halloween.
Aaaaand: It’s also Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Aaaand: For Christians, this is also All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day.
That’s a lot happening at pretty much the same time, all over the span of 72 hours every year, from October 31st to November 2nd.
These traditions have different origins, but they all draw on the same idea: This is the time of year when the living connect with the dead. That said, each tradition portrays the dead really differently. It’s interesting to think about how these differences affect how we think about our own deaths, and how our loved ones might relate to us after we die.
Today I’m going to give a brief history of each holiday and then talk about how they shape our perceptions of death.
Let’s take them in calendar order. First up, October 31: Halloween.
Halloween traces its origin from the ancient Celtic festival of [SAH-win] Samhain. Because it’s spelled S-A-M-H-A-I-N, I always thought it was pronounced “sam-hane” but I recently learned I was wrong. It’s SAH-win. Ancient Celts celebrated Samhain from October 31 to November 1, the night when they believed the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down. Burial mounds were opened and acted as portals to the Otherworld. The dead came back and ancient Celts set a place for them at the feast table. The dead were not the only ones to show up, though. Other supernatural beings and gods crossed over that night and not all of them were nice. Some of them were quite unpredictable and might kill people or livestock over the long winter. To prevent this, during Samhain the Celts lit bonfires and left out different kinds of offerings to stay on their good side. Celts also dressed up like animals or monsters to fool the fairies and avoid getting harmed.
Generally, the traditions of Samhain center on the idea that having spirits crossing into our world was a dangerous thing. Even setting out food for dead family members was meant to appease the spirits, to keep them from causing harm. The dead were seen as hungry ghosts, and other supernatural creatures like fairies could be downright dangerous. It was best to avoid them and if they showed up, you had to be prepared.
Meanwhile, over in Rome in 609 A.D., the Catholic Pope established a feast to honor martyrs. It was originally held at Easter time, but was later moved to November 1 and became All Saint’s Day. After that, they added All Soul’s Day on November 2 because I guess they realized it was important to also honor the dead who weren’t saints. Both All Saints Day and All Souls Day included religious ceremonies, plus time at the cemetery to clean graves, leave fresh flowers and candles, and say prayers for the dead. The focus is on the ascent of the souls of the faithful to heaven, and this is seen as a one-way trip. In Christian traditions, the dead don’t come back, although you can make appeals to them through prayer.
It’s notable that these holidays all treat death as final and either scary or holy in a somber way. The thinning of the veil between our world and the spirit world was a frightening event, or at least something to make one say prayers. The dead are considered distant, gone. If they come back, they’re undead monsters or unsatisfied ghosts who feel tortured and trapped between worlds. The image of death we inherit from these traditions is one that’s pretty sad and awful. The only hope is to be good enough to be accepted into heaven – in that way you can avoid suffering.
Over time this has shifted, of course. Nowadays we celebrate Halloween and not Samhain. The name “Halloween” emerged when Christianity moved into the Celtic lands, and Samhain and All Saints Day got linked together. In Middle English, the name All Saint’s Day is something like “Alhalowmesse” (please excuse my pronunciation!). That got shortened into All-Hallows. This led to referring to the event the night before, Samhain, as All-Hallows Eve, and that name eventually turned into Halloween.
And where Samhain was a night when you leave treats out to avoid getting kidnapped or killed by fairies, these days Halloween is a night where you might dress like a fairy and go in search of getting treats for yourself. When this transformation happened is a little murky, but it seems likely that the early colonies of the United States are to blame for that - I read theories that it might have been because of the influence of Native American or Cajun traditions. It’s not clear.
Even though it’s mostly a party now, Halloween is still characterized by being afraid of ghosts and supernatural creatures. It doesn’t so much feel like an embracing of death. It’s like death is a backdrop, one that still feels fake and distant.
And while the other two days, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, started out as somber occasions observed by religious people, they have morphed over the centuries as well. As Christianity spread around the globe, it often bumped up against local practices to honor the dead. I find it interesting that many of these were held around the same time of year in the Northern hemisphere, at the end of the harvest season. As local traditions were either incorporated or obliterated, these cultures ended up celebrating All Saints and All Souls in different ways, but most of the time the tradition involves visiting the graves of ancestors.
My mother is from the Philippines, and I have a particular fascination with what happens in their cemeteries at this time of year. There was a pre-Christian tradition of people from all over gathering at the graves and staying overnight there, and this got absorbed into how they celebrate All Souls Day. It’s basically like an annual family reunion in the cemetery and can last all three days, from October 31 to November 2. It starts with cleaning up the family grave and then continues with people gathering from all over and meeting at the cemetery. Food is brought. Shade structures and mah jong tables are set up. Guitars and boomboxes play music. I have seen family crypts that were wired for electricity with refrigerators and TVs in them. The cemetery can end up looking like a big party. I’ve always wanted to be there for this because it just sounds amazing. Sadly, because of COVID, it’s been canceled this year for the second year in a row. I feel badly for all the millions of Filipinos who usually make this annual trip to the cemetery.
The other holiday I want to talk about is Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It originated in Mexico. While it is celebrated on November 2 and is associated with All Souls Day, the attitude towards the dead is incredibly different.
Like Samhain, one of the basic ideas of the Day of the Dead is that the border between the spirit world and the material world is thinnest that night. Unlike Samhain, this is something to look forward to. The expectation is that on Día de los Muertos, the living are visited at home by the people they loved who are now dead. That visit is a cause for celebration. People build altars to honor and welcome their deceased loved ones. These altars, called Ofrendas, are decked out with food and other things that the dead loved. This is the day that the living can have conversations with the dead, ask for favors, and generally just have a great time hanging out with someone that they miss. This is beautifully illustrated in Pixar’s movie, Coco. If you haven’t seen it, I totally recommend it.
Outside of homes, there are public altars and Day of the Dead parades. These parades have grown in popularity in recent years. The one here in San Francisco is huge and is now joined by people of all races. People love painting their faces like skulls and singing and dancing in the streets. The style of the skulls is totally different from Halloween skulls. Halloween is scary, but Día de los Muertos skulls are joyous and playful. The outfits are colorful, often decked out with flowers and fancy clothing. You’ve probably seen the image of La Calavera Catrina, the most well-known image of Día de los Muertos. It’s a skeleton in a super-fancy dress with a giant hat. I love that this image was originally drawn as a political statement by the Mexican illustrator, José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina was intended to be a jab at the upper class obsession with European high society. The drawing was a reminder to the rich that in the end, they’ll just be skeletons like everyone else. It’s a message that I think would be useful to keep spreading.
I find the contrast between these attitudes towards death to be significant. In Samhain and Halloween, the spirit world is frightening and anonymous. All Saints Day and All Souls Day treat death as somber and sacred. In Día de los Muertos, having the dead come back is cause for celebration and even humor.
There’s even a difference in the sense of finality. Samhain suggests that if our loved ones return, they might trick us and even kill us. With All Saints and All Souls, the goal is to ascend to heaven and leave the earth forever. Spirits who are here on earth are lost and are in pain. The Day of the Dead, on the other hand, suggests that our dead loved ones can come back and visit with us and that we should be ready to greet them with their cookies or beer or cigars or whatever would give them pleasure after they’ve made that journey.
Personally, I’m more drawn to the feeling of the Day of the Dead. I especially like the reminder that whatever our bodies and clothing look like while we’re alive, we’re all just skeletons underneath and will all face the same fate. I also like the idea of having a night when I could be visited by all the many people I’ve known who have died. Many of them laughed a lot while they were here. I look forward to laughing with them again on November 2.
That’s it for today. Thank you for joining me. If you want to support my efforts to help people do death planning in advance, please tell someone about this show. Right now my focus is on letting people know about this show and word of mouth is really the best. Thanks!
The theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Everything else was done by me. You can find the transcript and links at DyingKindness.com. Until next time, I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday - but hopefully, not before I get to visit with some spirits from the other side.
but hopefully, not before I get to go to the cemetery party in the Philippines.
Today’s death reading is from a tradition of poems written for Día de los Muertos called Poemas Calaveras or Skull Poems. They’re often written about living people to poke fun at them. This one was written in 2015 when Donald Trump was not yet President. It’s by Francisco X. Alarcón and was published on Facebook. You’ll hear it first in Spanish, and then in English. Many thanks to Jenny Ortez for reading it in the original Spanish!
Poema Calavera a Donald Trump
por Francisco X. Alarcón
una Calaca se coló
a la última conferencia
con ojo a la presidencia
que Donald Trump ofreció
y cuando el Trompas comenzó
su afrenta racista ritual
anti-inmigrante ya habitual
la Huesuda se lo llevó
de las greñas rubias sin más;
al inframundo lo arrastró
donde piñata lo volvió
con sus millones por demás
dicen que el muy arrogante
billonario entre palos todavía
el gran muro que proponía
para excluir a todo inmigrante
a los Diablos del infierno
para que no sigan llegando
tanto mexicano al averno
gracias Calaca querida
por librarnos del Gran Trompas
que con falacias idiotas
daña a tanta gente linda
Skull Poem for Donald Trump
a Calaca quietly snuck
into the last press conference
with an eye to the presidency
that Donald Trump offered
and when the Big Mouth started
his anti-immigrant racist affront
ritual that is his usual shtick,
the Bony Woman took him
by pulling his blonde hair without
further thought, dragging him to
the underworld, turning him into a piñata
not withstanding his many millions
they say that the very arrogant
billionaire between hits
the great wall which he proposed
to exclude every immigrant
he is still trying to convince the devils
of the underworld to build it
so Mexicans won't keep coming
in great numbers to their hell
thank you, Calaca darling
for getting rid of the Big Mouth
whose idiotic fallacies intend
to hurt so many beautiful people