Celebrating the Days of the Dead

Halloween happens to be my favorite holiday. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: I’m an amateur SFX artist, avid reader and watcher of horror, and recovering high school goth. I am at the peak of my power during the Halloween season. But this year, I wasn’t sure how to celebrate it. I’m not a big fan of the commercialization of holidays — I like trick ‘r treating as much as the next person, but I like my celebrations to have a little bit more substance.

The issue with finding that substance in Halloween is that it grew out of two very distinct traditions which happen to have a very strong animosity towards each other. On one hand, most of our modern traditions come from the Irish festival of Samhain (pronounced “sOW-in”), which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter; Samhain is a time for acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between life and death and for honoring our deceased loved ones. Even today, a lot of people choose to celebrate Samhain instead of Halloween, and it has grown in popularity with the spread of Wicca, in which it is recognized as one of the eight sabbats. On the other hand, the word “Halloween” comes from All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of the Christian Feast of All Saints. All Saints’ Day is similar to Samhain in that it includes a celebration of the dead, but it is a distinctly Christian holiday focused on honoring those who have died and gone to Heaven, with an emphasis on their new role as agents of Christ — it’s a time to ask the saints for support and for guidance. There are Christians who will claim that Halloween has purely Christian roots, and that the Samhain connection was invented as an effort to “paganize” the holiday. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Christians who refuse to celebrate Halloween because it’s a pagan celebration that “invokes demons.” (I know one family who literally spend the night inside with their doors locked, praying, until the last of the trick ‘r treaters has passed on.) And then there are the pagans who claim that All Saints’ Day was created by the Church to provide a way for recently-converted Christians to continue their Samhain traditions without compromising their newfound faith. Halloween probably evolved from a combination of these influences, but my point is that a lot of people have very strong feelings about this holiday and how it should be celebrated.

For my celebration, I did my best to honor all of these various influence. It seems to me that Samhain and All Saints’ Day are both, at their hearts, about acknowledging death as a natural part of our existence and about remembering those who have gone before us. I think that, no matter which you choose to celebrate, it should be a positive holiday. Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve both stem from the belief that death is not the end of the line, but merely the next stage in the journey of our souls.

I chose to honor Halloween by lighting a candle for my deceased family and friends and taking a little bit of time out of my night to connect with them. I didn’t perform a seance or anything [And here’s my obligatory Halloween PSA: Don’t mess around with the spirit world, kids.], but I did take a moment to remember those I loved who have passed before me into death, and to thank them for the ways that they influenced and continue to influence my life.


I dressed my candle up a little bit with some cedarwood incense (which smells amazing, and is my current favorite scent) and some of the last flowers from our garden. The inclusion of the flowers is another way to emphasize the temporary nature of our physical lives and the cycle of life and death.

Now I was raised Catholic, which means that, for me, Halloween never actually ends after October 31st. As previously mentioned, Halloween is just the eve of All Saints’ Day — for Catholics, All Saints’ Day itself is the main event.

I had work on the 1st, so I wasn’t able to attend the All Saints’ service at my church and celebrate with everyone else. I was, however, able to stop by the church after my shift and spend a few moments alone in the sanctuary, going through the scripture readings from the service and reciting the litany of the saints. It was a very powerful experience, and I think the still silence of the church just made it that much more profound.

I’m currently attending an Episcopal church, and this was my first experience of the Episcopal All Saints’ liturgy. I think my favorite thing is that the litany included people who weren’t canonized saints, or even Christians. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on the list, as was Gandhi (incidentally, both people I consider great inspirations for my personal spirituality). The inclusion of these people really drives home the idea that a “saint” isn’t necessarily someone who has been canonized, but someone who has lived their life in harmony with God and now resides with God in the hereafter.

I think this passage from Wisdom of Solomon 3, which is one of the Old Testament readings for the Episcopal All Saints’ service, really sums up the spirit of this feast day: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”

The third and final “Day of the Dead” is All Souls’ Day, traditionally celebrated on November 2nd. All Souls’ Day is less widely celebrated than All Saints’ Day, which is a shame because I honestly believe it may be even more important and profound. To put it simply, All Souls’ Day is a day on which we remember all those who have died without honor, the people who didn’t make the history books, who didn’t necessarily live extraordinarily righteous lives, and who have no one to remember them.


I am lucky enough to live near a historic cemetery, which is home to several graves of unidentifiable Civil War soldiers. I felt like this was a fitting place to honor the Feast of All Souls, and I chose to celebrate this feast day by visiting the cemetery, walking among the graves, reading headstones (especially the old and neglected-looking ones), and offering prayers for those at rest there.


This isn’t about me taking pity on these souls, or trying to pray them into Heaven, or anything like that. I have no idea who these people were, whether they lived good lives, or where they are now — and, frankly, it’s none of my business. All of that is between them and God. I just wanted to remember them, to honor their lives and deaths. That’s all.

As we move away from the warmth of summer and into the colder, darker half of the year, it makes sense to take some time to reflect on the nature of death and its relationship to us. For me, death is neutral. It is neither positive nor negative; it is simply a transition into the next stage of our existence. I also do not believe that those who have died are completely cut off from the world of the living. I know from personal experience that those who have gone before us are able to remain active in our lives as guardians and as guides. It’s a form of transcendence, and I don’t think it’s something we need to be afraid of.

One response to “Celebrating the Days of the Dead”

  1. Anna | Yes, Little Hummingbird? Avatar
    Anna | Yes, Little Hummingbird?

    What always strikes me as interesting when people assert that Halloween grew out of “traditions that have a very strong animosity towards each other”… Is that “Samhain” (properly Lá Samhna if you’re referring to the whole period of celebration… Or Oíche Shamhna if you’re referring specifically to the celebration’s eve- which people tend to conflate with Halloween despite it correctly being closer to November 13th / 14th according to the old calendars) originates from the Irish… Who had a peaceful conversion which allowed their oral lore and traditions to be retained and recorded in a manner seen in few other conversion cases. And that good relationship stayed pretty well in tact for quite a while, in a period where Christianity was far more tolerant about the retention of folk practices by convert cultures and ethnicities.

    Wicca / Neo-Wicca / the Neo-Pagan revival in general tends to tell a very weird version of history that never really happened (or was rarely as extreme as they tell it, when it did).


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