On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta'en,
Beneath the moon's pale beams;
There, up the Cove, to stray an' rove,
Amang the rocks and streams
To sport that night;
Amang the bonie winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin, clear;
Where Bruce ance rul'd the martial ranks,
An' shook his Carrick spear;
Some merry, friendly, countra-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an' pou their stocks,
An' haud their Halloween
Fu' blythe that night.
——Robert Burns, from Halloween
The first known time the word "Halloween" was used in print
In the U.S., anyway, we have an uncomfortable relationship with death. You might call it "out of sight, out of mind." If they're dying of natural causes, very few people die in the home anymore, and if they do, we shove them out the door as quickly as possible.
That brings us to a couple of autumn holidays: Halloween, celebrated each year on October 31, and the Day of the Dead, celebrated from October 31 through November 2 every year.
Both have roots in the Gaelic and Celtic pagan celebration Samhain (pronounced SOW-en). That millennia-old holiday commemorates the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker part of the year. It is considered a liminal time, when spirits could cross into the land of the living, and celebrants believed they had to appease the spirits to ensure their cattle and land would survive the winter.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, melds Samhain with ancient Aztec and Toltec ceremonies. It's also tied to the Catholic All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2).
The holiday is very much a celebration of the lives of deceased family members, whose photos are placed with candles, flowers and other offerings on household ofrendas, or altars. As with Samhain, it's a liminal time; deceased ancestors can visit the living.
While the jack-o-lantern is a common symbol of Halloween (more on that later), the skull is the symbol of the Day of the Dead. Revelers paint their faces, and parade in bright colors.
Halloween, meanwhile, has roughly the same origins as Day of the Dead minus the Aztec influence. The night before All Saints' Day was deemed "All Hallow's Eve" by the Catholic Church sometime around the mid-ninth century.
The Scots poet Robert Burns contracted Hallow's Eve to Halloween in a a href="http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1785 poem.
Celebrations of spirits around Halloween turned into mischievous gatherings, which turned into modern-day trick-or-treating.
The legend of the jack-o-lantern is an interesting one I never knew. It seems as though a town drunk named Jack trapped Satan up a tree, and promised he'd let the devil come down if the Prince of Darkness never took his soul. Jack died, as people tend to do, and being a conniving drunkard, he didn't get into Heaven, but the devil kept his end of the bargain, and wouldn't take Jack's soul. He did give Jack some flame to light his way through the world, and there is your jack-o-lantern.