Days of the Dead

Calavera y Calabaza/Skull and Pumpkin by garlandcannon (CC BY-SA)

Calavera y Calabaza/Skull and Pumpkin by garlandcannon (CC BY-SA)

The darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. ―Ray Bradbury
The first of November is a splendid, subversive holiday.
―Mary Rose O’Reilley
Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper-thin . . . ―Carolyn MacCullough
The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them. ―Czesław Miłosz
Only the forgotten are truly dead. ―Tess Gerritsen



Halloween’s roots run deeper than the superheroes, slutty kittens, and candy corn that crowd our pumpkin-strewn porches these days. With grocery stores and quantum physics, ancient winter harvest festivals and appeasing departed spirits may seem silly. But with a little help from seasonal cousins, All Hallows’ Eve could mean more than spandex and sugar.

I like my holidays with a sense of history and purpose, even if, like Earth Day or Kwanzaa,  they’re pretty recent. So while others are planning their costumes, I look forward to the day after Halloween. That’s when I bask in the firelight of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when people honor their lost loved ones with stories, marigolds, sugar skulls, candles, photos, feasts, and other ofrendas, or offerings.

And next week comes Halloween’s own ancestor Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), an ancient Celtic holiday that marks the end of harvest and beginning of winter. Believed to be a portal between this world and the next, it’s also a time to commemorate absent loved ones. Modern pagans still celebrate Samhain by honoring their ancestors and the cyclical nature of life and death with ceremonies, costumes, feasts, and stories.

Actually, most cultures throughout history have set aside special times to honor their beloved dead. But in the West we’re so terrified of death that we even dread signs of aging—and tend to ignore mortality until a funeral forces us to face it. Yet holidays like Dia de los Muertos and Samhain, while dark, aren’t somber. Their reverence and playfulness help us deal with death. Halloween could, too.

Embracing the macabre, we could allow ourselves to reflect on the dark images we usually avoid. Carving pumpkins, a traditional autumn harvest yield, is a simple reminder that not long ago our survival was more closely tied to things like crops and weather and friendship between neighbors. Winter’s stasis, while vital for new growth, can remind us we’re vulnerable to nature.

The choice is yours—you can make Halloween fun and meaningful. Taking cues from Dia de los Muertos and Samhain, you can spend the day honoring absent loved ones, playing with the boundaries between this world and the next, and remembering that death is an integral part of life. These early autumn days are a fitting time to remember and honor what passes away, which strengthens us for all the delights yet to come.

As the sun’s light and heat retreat, may all your macabre festivities warm and brighten the coming days.


  1. Pingback: Transforming Traditions

  2. Commerce or culture… Both feed us, both play with our minds. I find the most fun is seeing small children circulating the neighborhood still with the mystery and joy of costumes and make believe, asking politely for a treat, saying thank you and off into the night… Parents hovering near to be sure all is well. These are the best.

    And there are the horrors too. Unpleasant ones, banging, demanding, grabbing, pushing, insisting on their loot. Really just a prelude for their emerging life ahead. Distressing.

    Is not culture and commerce always thus?

    Here in the tropics our own harvest season is signaled not by pumpkins on the vines but snowbirds on the hoof.

    Yet I remain thankful the little darlings continue to see joy and mystery in pretending to be wise witches and ghostly pirates rather than the much more scary evasive politician or rabid early bird diner. But they are young yet.

    Happy Halloween!

What do you think?