Reflections on "Festivals of the Dead"

This is part of our Diverse Expressions of Grief series, written by Hilary Dockray.


Samhain is yet another example of a “festival of the dead,” or an ancient cultural holiday that celebrates and honors the deceased. These “festivals of the dead” can be found in long-standing ethnic or spiritual cultures from around the world, and most were developed independently from each other. This pattern suggests that staying connected with the deceased is a universal human desire.

Samhain Celtic SpiralsWhile most of these ancient “festivals of the dead” developed independently from each other originally, more and more they are being influenced by each other. The history of Christianity’s All Saints’ Day, Samhain, Halloween, Wicca, and Día de Los Muertos illustrate this process.

The word Halloween was derived from “All Hallows’ Eve,” which was also known as “All Saints’ Eve,” the eve of Christianity’s All Saints’ Day. In fact, All Saints’ Day was originally celebrated in May, but the date was changed to November 1st, with October 31st thus becoming its eve, to coincide with Samhain’s celebration of the deceased. In this case, Samhain influenced All Saints’ Day as well as Halloween.

As explored in the entry on Día de Los Muertos, in the 16th century the holiday was a victim of the Spanish attempt to eradicate Aztec culture. The holiday was originally about a month long, but was reduced by the Spanish to November 1st and 2nd so that it would coincide Christianity’s All Saints’ Day. In this case, All Saints’ Day influenced Día de Los Muertos.

Furthermore, while Samhain is not often celebrated as it originally was anymore, its traditions live on in various holidays. As explored in the section before, many secular aspects of Samhain are now the basis of Halloween. Conversely, many spiritual aspects of Samhain are now practiced by Wiccans and other Neopagans.

This intersection of “festivals of the dead” illustrated above is part of the greater reality that as humans are becoming more connected to each other through globalism, our cultures are becoming more connected as well.

In fact, the “Diverse Expressions of Grief” blog series itself illustrates this increasing interaction between world cultures. One purpose of the blog series is to hopefully provide different tools from various cultures around the world that readers can appropriate for their own grief processes; this is a small but accurate example of the larger cultural transference between grief and mourning rituals.

With all of this in mind, learning about the colorful history of Samhain and its influence on modern celebrations was a reminder to myself, and perhaps to you as well, that no matter how foreign a grief or mourning ritual might seem, it is still yours to identify with and use if you so desire, because it is probably more relevant to your life and your history than you may even realize.

About the Author:

Hilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. She received her MSSW in December of 2012 and hopes to work in nonprofit administration and management. She is an advocate for the understanding of grief and the support of those who grieve in both her personal and professional lives. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to be a guest blogger for The Christi Center.

Here are just a few of the links that I used for my research where you can also learn more about Samhain, Neopaganism, and Wicca:


Original Samhain and Its Evolution:


Wicca, Neopaganism, and Neopagan Samhain:

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