Understanding Halloween: Or, Why Halloween Is Such An Important Holiday!

The Day of the Dead, All Hallows Eve, Samhain, and Halloween are celebrations of the same essential truth: the remembrance of death, our seasonal descent into darkness, and the celebration of life’s sweetness in the face of all that.

Each of these traditions acknowledge the existence of the dead in other realms: their influence on us, our dependence on them, and the connections that continue to flow between us long after we are gone.  It is not merely a commercial holiday or excuse for debauchery, but a deep reflection of life’s complexity and mystery.  

When so many of us struggle with existential questions, like “Is there life after death? Where do I go when I die? And where are my deceased loved ones now?,” celebrations like Halloween can bring healing in both material and spiritual realms.  I often ask clients if they have ever been “visited” by a deceased loved one, in dreams or waking life.  A surprising number say yes.  But it can be hard for us to connect the dots from our own, individual experience to a larger system of understanding and faith.

The word “faith” is not specific to any particular religious system.  It is a spirit of hope inside of us that doesn’t die.  When we are lonely or grieving, it can feel like a piece of our heart has been wrenched from us forever.  But when we experience the presence of that lost being again, whether through a visit, through a memory, through a family resemblance, we are reconnected to the thread of that soul’s life.  And if we follow the many threads of the souls we have been touched by, we realize they are part of an intricate web of ancestry that weaves all of us together into a human family.

The Day of the Dead remembers and honors the ancestors who have gone before us, whose very bones have created the soil that feeds us, and whose wisdom and skill at survival allowed us to be born.  Celebrants entice the spirits of the dead back to Earth using delicious treats laid out for them, beautiful candles, bright flowers, and vigorous dancing to “wake the dead.” We can bring these traditions into our homes with reverence as well as joy.  Let Halloween be a holiday specific to the ones who have vanished from your life.  Call their spirits back to you with your joy and celebration.  Remind them how rich it was to be alive.  

All Hallows Eve is a Christian version of this same celebration, which recognizes the saints and believes the dead rise from their graves one night each year to perform a “danse macabre.” Christians began dressing in costumes to disguise their identities from vengeful ghosts.  We can similarly use this time to cast off the burden we may carry in our relationships with the dead.  Old guilt, resentments, anger and fear can be purged by donning the appearance of a superhero, a powerful god or goddess, or any magical figure you would like to emulate more strongly.

Samhain (pronounced “sawin”) is “Summer’s End,” a cross-quarter holiday that honors the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark season.  This Celtic holiday marked the return of cattle from their summer pastures, and their slaughter for the Winter months.  It was a chance for people to offer fire and feast to the gods in appeal for care through the dark and cold.  These offerings are the manifestation of humility—the true understanding that we live at the whim of nature and time.  We can take the precariousness of our own lives to heart and give generously to those around us.  It may be we will need their help someday soon.

Many see Halloween as a child’s sugary nightmare, made of unhealthy candy and expensive costumes.  But if we remember the roots of this holiday and take them to heart, we can create a communal ritual that is worthy of its message: eating the fruits of harvest, letting old things die, and bringing the most precious things back to life, if only for one day.
Moana Meadow is an interfaith minister, spiritual director, birth doula, and hospice chaplain. She has practiced Native American ceremony for many years, and welcomes women of all ages and faiths.