Holidays in liminal spaces: Where Halloween, Day of the Dead originated

Upon that night, when fairies light

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.

We get mildly uncomfortable when we hear Doug Stanhope tell a (hilarious) story about not so much assisting as bar-backing his mother’s suicide.

When we opt for open-casket visitations, usually the individual has been pumped full of preservatives and made up to look living, but really, looks like a creepy silicon doll more often than not.

But there are cultures that don’t look at death with such fear. One Japanese custom has family members sorting cremated remains with chopsticks. The Jewish prayer of mourning, the kaddish, doesn’t mention death at all, and is instead something of a plea for peace and blessings in our lives.

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.

Printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada created the most famous of the Day of the Dead skeletons, La Calavera Catrina, which is a re-imagining of the Aztec goddess of the underworld, Mictecacíhuatl.

If you want a beautiful, if Disney-fied, family-friendly look at the Day of the Dead, watch Coco.

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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=”” 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.

The official Jehovah’s Witness website uses Bible verses to decry various aspects of Halloween.

I hope you’re enjoying this rundown of mostly secular holidays we’re doing this year. It’s been fun to learn about the origins of some of these celebrations we take for granted.


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