Today is November 1, the second in a three-day celebration of the one thing that we all have in common: Death. No matter where you go in the world, no matter which century you visit, at this time of year you’ll find the same thing–a celebration of a bountiful harvest and the realization that winter is coming.

This time of year is notable because it’s all about change. In September, we have the Fall Equinox and Ember Days, where light and dark are equal in length. In October, the light begins to take over, getting darker and darker, until the final harvest is in. When we lived in a fully agrarian society, the bounty of the second harvest offered a hard truth. The amount that was harvested would decide how many people would live through the winter. After the harvest was in, and the food prepped and stored for the winter, people would turn their attention to their physical safety–strengthening fences, cleaning and sharpening weapons, fixing roofs, etc. because even if there was a bountiful harvest, the second hard truth was that, during the winter, others would come to take what they themselves didn’t have.

So it’s no surprise that by the end of October, when nights outlasts days, people believed the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Both pagans and Christians believed that this time of year served two purposes. The first was to show their gratitude for the harvest (and pray for a short winter). The second purpose was to pray for the dead. Examples are the Gaelic festival of of Samhain and, in Mexico, the celebration of Día de los Muertos.

Traditionally, the Gaelic druids believed that November 1st was a day to honor the dead. Eventually, as Ireland and Britain became christian, the day was split between November 1 and 2. November 1st became All Hallows Day (aka Hallowmas) while November 2 became All Souls Day. Why All Hallows Day? Because in old English the word Hallow is an archaic form of the word Saint. Which is why we now call November 1 All Saints Day.

The day before All Hallows became All Hallows Eve and it was believed that because the veil between the living and the dead was thin, the dead could come back and walk the earth, possibly seeking those among the living who were ready to die. On All Hallows Eve, which became Halloween, people wore costumes, carried lanterns and built bonfires to confuse the spirits and lead them back to the land of the dead before they took any of the living with them. After a night of bonfires and revelry, people would then spend the next two days honoring the dead. On November 1, they’d honor the saints–those martyrs who died for the faith. Then, on November 2, they honored those souls who may still be in purgatory (a cleansing space before being allowed entrance into Heaven).

For centuries, both pagans and christians celebrated these days with the hope that by honoring the dead, and keeping them where they needed to be, the living would be make it through the winter. But as time passed, these days have become more about harvest festivals, trick-or-treating, and preparing for Thanksgiving. Still, when All Hallows Eve arrives, there always seems to be an extra chill in the air, more shadows in the darkness, and an awareness that the living are not alone.


Similar Posts