Samhainn and Day of the Dead

2 November 2022

It is interesting to note when two cultures separated by an ocean and almost two continents each celebrate their respect for those who have passed away in extremely similar fashion. In this case we are talking about the Celts in western Europe and Mexicans in North America. In fact, both cultures observed celebrations within days of each other earlier this week.

Celtic New Year (Samhainn)

Celtic groups include Britons, Gauls, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, among many others. Their new year, called Samhainn (pronounced “sah-wen”) begins at dusk on October 31. The Celts believe on that night the veil between our world and the Otherworld became so thin that those who were gone from this life could return to places they had lived while alive. The Celts generously provided food and drink and left their gates, doors, and windows unlocked so their ancestors could have easy access.

Much of the ceremony centered around a great bonfire. All of the villagers extinguished all other fires and relit from the new flame by carrying embers to their homes in carved turnips, which evolved into our modern jack-o-lanterns.

Children would dress up in outlandish outfits and pretend to be returning spirits. Besides providing a link between the worlds, the Celts thought societal norms could be suspended and the youngsters would play tricks on their elders.

This evening became Hallow Evening, Hallow E’en, or what we now call Halloween.

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)

Rituals involving death rites have roots in times long before the Spanish came to the continent. There are artifacts and murals that show the ceremonies that the indigenous peoples of the area observed.

November 1 and 2 (which correlate to the Roman Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day) are when the people of Mexico celebrate the opportunity for the spirits of the deceased to return home and spend time with the living. To encourage this visitation, altars are built that include food and drink.

Each altar will vary but most will contain decorated sculls, or calavaras, and flowers like marigolds. It is common to give gifts to living friends like candy. Very often people will paint their faces to resemble the calavaras and wear fancy clothing. Noisemakers are used to create more enthusiasm and possibly to stimulate the dead and have them join in the fun.

The Chicano Movement in the United States introduced this event and expanded it to the entire community. It is also often part of the cultures in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatamala, and Haiti.

Bottom Line

Obviously the two celebrations are not identical. The Hispanics do not build bonfires and Celtic New Year does not feature painted scull art. However, it is still interesting to note the similarities of visiting with those who have gone before, providing food and drink, and wearing costumes or masks. Both cultures reaffirm their love and respect for deceased family members and friends and celebrate joyfully. Just something to think about.

Thanks to Cultural Crossroads, Inc. for their assistance with material for this piece. (culturalcrossroadskc.wordpress.com).

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