Today is All Souls Day, also known in Latin America as El Dia de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead.
It is the final day of a series of celebrations, starting with Halloween (All Hallows Evening, 31st October) and All Hallows (or All Saints) Day (1st November).
Each date has a complex history of its own, meaning different things to different participants in different parts of the world.
Dating back to early medieval Western Christianity, All Souls was (and still is) believed to be a day when the dead and the living can be brought closer. The feast of All Souls or Soulmas commemorated all souls thought to be suffering in Purgatory. This proximity meant that many medieval people believed that the souls of the dead would come to visit their former homes and loved ones around this day. Sometimes special food and drink was made for the visitors, a tradition which has continued. Latin American communities often put special bread, hot chocolate and glasses of water out for the travelling spirits (Marchi, 2009), and remembrance altars with photos of loved ones are now made as a core part of the celebrations.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that all of the communication between the living and the dead was historically welcome or even intended. Dutch folklore cautions against leaving doors open around the All Souls period, just in case any visiting deceased soul should get trapped or otherwise outstay their welcome. In Germany, candles were sometimes lit on graves to help the dead find their way to their bodies (Venbrux, 2012). It is likely that some aspects of the traditions associated with these festivals pre-date Christianity. The ancient Celtic solstice festival of Samhain fell around the Halloween-All Souls period, marked by bonfires and candles.
Not all visitors during these historic festivals were deceased. Souling was a popular pastime in medieval England. The special soul cakes were made specifically for the living, given to those going door to door singing ‘souling’ songs. The cakes were presumably washed down with beer or ale. This was effectively a forerunner of trick or treating. Not providing hospitality to other celebrants from one’s community probably would not have been a good idea. Being called ‘inhospitable’ was a serious insult to a medieval householder, and would have led to community judgement.
Traditions vary globally over how, when (or even if) these days should be marked now, and the complex international histories of these commemorations is not always clear in their present incarnations or to their celebrants.
These events have definitely brought much joy and fun over the centuries.
But they have also brought considerable conflict and sometimes violence. For example, in early 20th century America, Halloween ‘pranks’ was sometimes used as a cover to justify terrible racist attacks and to fuel social division.
A key question we should always ask ourselves is who is being excluded from a festival or marginalized. Whilst celebrants now pray for ‘all souls’, historically those who were not deemed to be Christian would have been excluded. Other festivals and traditions also practiced around the winter solstice period were subsumed into the ‘official’ ones, especially if they represented alternative beliefs.
Even modern-day secularized Halloween can be exclusive. I personally love all of the costumes, decorations and tasty sugary treats. But what about those unable to afford to participate?
In these difficult times however, I prefer to reflect on what the underlying theme is in the history of commemorations.
What unites the history of these events is that they demonstrate people’s enduring love for those they have lost and a wish to joyfully commemorate their lives. They demonstrate a wish to celebrate and remember other’s bereavements. These are powerful sentiments for us as we face a global pandemic.