By Chelle Delaney: QCS Staff
We still celebrate Halloween today, but the holiday’s (or holy day’s) roots go back to 1,000 B.C.
That’s when, historians tell us, the Celtic people began to occupy a good part of Europe and the British Islands.
The Celts were not a unified nation, rather they were a number of tribes with commoners, warriors and kings. They had no writing, but they had a class of educated priests, known as Druids – a name that meant “knowing the oak tree.” What the Druids knew was learned from nature and the heavens.
For example, the Druids created an eight-month lunar calendar. Their fall celebration, which they called Samhain (sow-in), because the word means “end of summer.” Samhain was a time of transformation. The Druids taught that, during that time, the dead would join the living before going into the “otherworld.”
Samhain began at sunset on Oct. 31. It continued until sunset on Nov. 1.
All of the fires in the Celts’ hearths were put out at sunset, Oct. 31 – so there would be no light anywhere. Except that, at the same time, the Druids lit giant bonfires – not just to provide light for the night’s celebrations – but to, on the next evening of Nov.1, re-light the fires in the Celt’s hearths.
By the light of the bonfires, there were sacrifices, feasting, the wearing of animal heads and skins. And divination by the Druids who had colleges in “sacred groves” in Britain and Ireland, where the celebration became as the Facile na Marbh, the “Festival of the Dead.”
The Romans conquered the Celts in 43 A.D. but the Celtic Samhain celebration coincided with the Pomona – Roman celebration of the harvest, so nothing was lost.
Then when Christianity came to Rome, it also came to the Celtics. It was a pope in Rome in A.D. 834, who, inadvertently, turned Samhain into Halloween. Nov. 1 became All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Day, the night before, All Hallows Eve.
What had been Samhain became Hallowe’en, followed by All Saints’ Day, which, to include everybody, was followed by All Souls’ Day.
So the Celtic holiday persisted over thousands of years and changes of religions to become what we know as “Halloween.” Obviously traditions and customs sometimes have a long life.
New to New Mexico, is the re-discovery of another and coincidental aspect of long-living traditions:
Dias de los Muertos or “Days of the Dead,” which were (and are) celebrated at the same time as Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day – but with different customs and traditions.
Again, history tells us that, 3000 years ago, the Aztecs and Mayans had, during the month of August, celebrated their children and the lives of dead relatives. Presiding over the festivities was the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl or “Lady of the Dead.”
When the Spanish conquistadors came to South America, the Aztec/Mayan celebrations became a part of the All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day period.
And, in Mexico, New Mexico, and many other places, the Dias de los Muertos, honoring the dead, are still being celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. All Saints’ Day commemorates the souls of los angelitos or the “little angels.” All Soul’s Day honors all the dead, the muertos.
But, even though honoring the dead, the Dias de los Muertos are celebrated in a very festive fashion. Colorful offerings or offrendas await the returning spirits. Lots of sumptuous food is prepared. There are sugar skulls and candy skeletons and cakes of all description. All this both for the living – and for the dead.
The dead, when they revisit their homes, will find displayed, on the altars of their kin, drawing or photographs of themselves, plus all sorts of things to look at and feast on. Or, if the dead choose to simply lie in their graves, they will welcome and enjoy the company of their relatives who will surely come visit.
The living, happy that the dead have come visiting, will sing and dance and enjoy themselves thoroughly. Just as their Aztec/Mayan ancestors may have done before the “Lady of the Dead.”
So, it’s plain to see that Celtic Halloween and the New Mexican Dias de los Muertos are still remembered and celebrated today. And when you consider how long ago they were born, it’s truly amazing, that we, today, continue to remember and to celebrate these special days.
Of course, we have the historians to thank for digging into the past, to discover what was done from 1,000 B.C. to 2006 A.D. But it wasn’t the historians who continued to celebrate these special days. It was us, the common, the indigenous people, who passed the celebrations on.
Why? Well, knowing what we know today, we might guess that this desire for continuity is built into our genes.
Perhaps, we observe the traditions of the past because of our love for our families, our parents and grandparents and great-great grandparents.
Maybe it’s a part of being human to stubbornly hold on to old customs.
But, whatever the reason, I think we’re all glad that Halloween and Days of the Dead are still with us, to reverently enjoy.
Chelle Delaney is associate publisher of the Quay County Sun. She can be reached at 461-1952 or by e-mail: