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The Fall Festivals of Death: Samhain, All Hallows’ and All Souls’, Halloween, Days of the Dead

The end of October and the beginning of November is the time of the big Fall festivals:

  • On 31 October, in the North Americas and, more recently, Europe, Halloween resurrects ghouls and ghosts, the undead and hell-bent witches.
  • Halloween originated from the pagan festival of Samhain, which is still observed on 31 October or 1 November by pagan religions and wicca.
  • On 1 and 2 November, Christians all over the world observe All Hallows’ or All Saints, and All Souls’.
  • On 1 and 2 November Mexicans celebrate the Days of the Dead (Los Días de los Muertos), an ancient Aztec celebration of the deceased.

All of these are about darkness, dying and the dead. Even we – with our electrical lighting and central heating, our alienation from nature and concealment of death – still celebrate them, instinctively feeling something of what they really mean.

In the past, the end of October meant the harvest was in and stored away in barns, cattle was brought in from the summer pastures, some to be slaughtered, and enough firewood to last the winter was stacked. Life was slowing down. The days grew shorter, darker, colder: nature was dying. But it was also a time of families reuniting. With the cattle also the shepherds returned home. Travel and outdoors activities were suspended. Families pulled together to bake and preserve meat and vegetables for the winter. Gathered around the hearth, they welcomed in their deceased kin and beloved. They repelled evil spirits just as they shut out the bats and the wolves.

Rituals were essential in this time of transition. The importance of the resulting festivals and holidays is evident from the fact that

  • even one of the earliest ones, the Celtic Samhain, is still celebrated;
  • subsequent cultures and religions, like Rome and Christianity, felt a need to adopt and adapt them;
  • one of our modern and most commercialized revelries (Halloween) still celebrates their ancient meaning.

Thus the pagan Samhain, the Roman Pomona Day, the Christian All Hallows’ and All Souls’, and the secular Halloween are not just connected through a clear historical line of parentage. They also stand in a thematical and logical, or should I say, psychological relation: their common themes (death and the presence, in life, of the dead, both friend and foe) are inspired by the psychology of individuals and society getting ready for Winter.

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