Days of Death: Samhain, Halloween, & Dia de los Muertos

Beginning today on Halloween (aka All Hallow's Eve) we move into three days of darkness and sacred communion with the past. It offers a time of reflection around our ancestors as well as honoring the process mourning and grief as a natural part of the change of seasons. 

The current secular Halloween holiday comes from the Christian celebration of All Saints Day on November 1 for honoring holy people of the past--hallow from Old English meaning "holy" and -een meaning "evening." However, before All Hallow's Eve was the ancient European festival of the dead called Samhain (pronounced saah-win or saa-ween). Samhain translates literally from Old Irish meaning "Summer's end" and was honored with a fire ritual for the completion of the end of the harvest and with it the cold weather.

In addition to the Christan holiday, All Saint's Day/All Hallow's Even, commemorating martyrs or holy figures, All Souls' day on November 2 was a way to honor those we knew and their souls.  On All Souls' Day, many modern Catholic churches still have a Book of the Dead, in which parishioners/visitors have an opportunity to write the names of relatives to be remembered. As Christian/Roman Catholic Spaniards took over Mexico, the Christian tradition merged with indigenous customs and gave birth to Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. In this way, Samhain shares more similarities with modern expressions of Day of the Dead in its paying respects to those no longer living, rather than the religious holidays of Christianity.

Some modern witches and Pagans (myself included) celebrate this sacred time from sundown on October 31 until November 1 with Samhain, All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead. Others observe the "holyday" around the full moon or new moon (yesterday) closest to that time or in early November with the astronomical midpoint between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. Though for the Southern Hemisphere this time would be late April and early May.

For me this time of year resonates as a spiritual new year. I still struggle to understand our strange Gregorian calendar of the new year starting in the middle of winter without any real seasonal significance.  No matter what or where you celebrate here are a few ways to tap into the astronomical, astrological, and seasonal energies of this time:  

  • Meditative nature walk to honor Earth's cycles and notice the changes
  • Make an ancestor altar 
  • Visit a cemetery to honor those who have passed
  • Learn about your family  lineage
  • Bonfire magic like the very early celebrations of fire and warmth
  • Clean out closet or home as a sign of new beginnings
  • Ritualize with divination such as tarot, runes, or astrology (my weapon of choice, duh)
  • Hold a seance, though only recommended if you can safely hold space
  • Gather with fellow witches/wizards (my favorite, hello coven time!)
  • Light a candle, meditate, reflect on the spiritual new year

Unlike Halloween, Samhain rituals are somber without music or parties and a lot energy. Gatherings are in private homes or locations rather than in public.  Rituals offer a way of healing and closure as well as a time to bring the heavenly  realm closer to our Earthly experience. We notice the trees losing their leaves and less sunlight. The sense of loss and death is inherent during this time of year and it helps to move into the darkness rather than away. Be with the energy instead of resisting, a part of being a witch is being of both light and dark and knowing which medicine to use when. For those of us who have lost dear ones or wish to connect with our ancestors or others from beyond, the veils between worlds are thin and now is a potent time to communicate.