From Halloween to Day of the Dead – A Three Day Journey for the Souls

Reverence for the dead is widely recognized as an unmistaken marker of the human condition. From the Egyptians and Romans to the Mayan and Mexicas, offerings and elaborate funeral rituals were prepared to ease the transition of the souls of the deceased into the world of the ethereal, and a trip to the underworld was often seen as a necessary challenge for the souls to complete the journey to their final resting place.  Samhain (pronounced sow-in) is a Wiccan (modern Pagan) holiday, observed from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1.  Samhain originally marked the Celtic New Year, at the end of their harvest season; it also indicated the beginning of the cold season, which Pagan Celts associated with death, believing that the line between the living and the dead could be crossed.  In Christianity, the first evidence of November 1 as a day of celebration of the feast of All Saints was recorded during the time of Pope Gregory III (731–741 AD), who on that day, dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, in Rome, to honour all saints and martyrs; later on, in 837 AD, Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance as the religious feast of All Saints’ Day.  In England, the date was known as All Hallows-mas during the Middle Ages; people prepared for their celebration with a vigil the night before, that is, All Hallows’ Eve.  Finally, Odilo, the fifth Abbot of Cluny, in France, assigned November 2 as All Souls’ Day in 998 AD, a day specific for remembering and praying for those who had passed away but were still in the process of purification; this observance gradually spread throughout the Catholic Church towards the end of the 10th century.  The three days all together were sometimes referred to as All-hallow-tide.

So, the journey begins on October 31st, with the vigil of All Hallows’ Eve, or as it is still known, Halloween.  When it was time to stay up for the vigil, people in those old days were afraid of the dark, marked by the shortening of day hours of late fall days, as well as the cold air signalling the winter season soon to come.  It was believed that souls came back to the earthly world, still in purgatory or restless from recent death, some seeking revenge from injustices committed by those still alive.  To avoid being recognized by these spirits, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark, to disguise themselves as wandering souls.  Another practice on Halloween, was to place food and wine outside their homes to appease the restless souls and prevent them from causing mischief.  These superstitions have evolved into the lighter and secular traditions of dressing up as ghouls and ghosts, and trick or treating.

A post about Halloween would not be complete without a scary story; La Llorona, El Chupacabras and other well-known Mexican Legends popped up on my Google search.  I also came across a very interesting character which arrived to Latin America from Portugal and Spain, used in the olden days to “encourage” children to behave nicely and go early to bed; “El Coco” (or Cucuy), is an evil being who comes out of the dark, late at night, to take misbehaved children if they are awake, or worse, to eat them.  EL Coco is at the center of many bloodcurdling stories and depictions in Spanish literature and art, such as Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’ illustration “Que Viene el Coco” (“El Coco is coming”, detail pictured at the top of the post.)  The Royal Spanish Academy includes the definition of “coco” as a word derived from the Portuguese côco – a ghost sporting a hollowed pumpkin for a head!

Could Jack – the mischievous being trapped between Heaven and Hell – and El Coco, be one and the same? (Insert sounds of evil laughter and cold wind blowing … )

When I was a little girl, this Hispanic version of the boogeyman would be frequently named (mostly by my teen-aged brother trying to scare me), even as part of a bedtime lullaby (sure, sleep well, baby).  El Coco always failed to scare me, nevertheless, because in my mind, I would just picture a coconut, the tropical fruit, or coco, in Spanish.  Coco is also a colloquial word to refer to one’s head, and of course it should not come as a surprise that it was a Spanish sailor who named the fruit, upon seeing its hard inner shell for the first time in the Polynesian islands, and relating that it looked like a coco (head), all hairy and with its three dark depressions resembling eyes and mouth:

el coco

FUN FACT: Disney’s Pixar movie “Coco” tells the story of a Mexican young boy visiting his relatives in the underworld while on a quest, but the title name has no relation to the scary legend; it was chosen because Coco is a common nickname for Socorro, the boy’s great grandmother’s name in the story.

15 thoughts on “From Halloween to Day of the Dead – A Three Day Journey for the Souls

    1. Hi, Tracy! I am so glad you’ve found this post interesting. All Saints’ and Day of the Dead (All Souls’), as I mentioned, are traditional in Mexico, but we did not know much about Halloween until I would say the late 1970s or so.

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      1. I shall know for future reference. Last night was the first time we had trick or treaters come to our house. The dogs made a huge noise about it. My blog mind has to operate in a different timezone, so I had nothing for them as I hadn’t prepared. I thought I had another day to go. I gather I wasn’t alone. It is usually only the households with young children that have any idea that it is Halloween.

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      2. Yes, I have a horror story: I left a bowl with candy outside my house for kids to help themselves (honour system, a sign said “two pieces per kid, please”); five minutes later, three boys (with no costumes on!) took all the treats (about 100 pieces). I took the empty bowl inside and had to turn off my lights so I would not disappoint other kids. Where is this world going? Lesson learned for me: next year, do not be lazy and hand out the candy to the kids as they drop by, or do not give out candy at all 😦

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