The Meaning of Samhain – Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead Fresco from Mexico City

Happy Samhain, Happy Halloween, and Happy Dia de los Muertos!

I thought I would put together a few facts about this holiday season for all of you. Many of you may know this stuff already, some may not. I actually take it all very seriously, as I celebrate Samhain, Halloween, and Dia de los Muertos. It’s definitely my favorite time of year. Halloween or Samhain had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples of Europe pided the year by four major holidays. Their year began around November 1st on our present calendar and marked beginning of winter. As people whose lives were tied to the land, it was a time when livestock had to be moved to closer pastures and made safe for the winter months. Crops were harvested and stored. It was the ending and a beginning in an eternal cycle.


This “New Year’s Festival” was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. People believed (and many still do) that the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the other world. People gathered to sacrifices. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were around; ghosts, fairies, and demons. Magical, exciting, and sometimes dangerous, it was a time of psychic visions and spiritual experiences.

How Samhain Became Halloween

In a nutshell, Christian “missionaries” co-opted Samhain in an attempt to convert the locals. So, they moved All Saints Day from February and dropped it in on November 2. And then the invented All Souls day and dropped it in on November 1. All Soul’s or All Hallows is when the living pray for the souls of the departed who may need help getting out of purgatory. Pretty similar to Samhain, where the dead are making a journey, but with the whole “sin” concept in there, just to keep it Christian and all. Soooo, the Christians figured that their All Saint’s and All Hallows would kick Samhain into the shadows. But what happened was a little different. October 31 began to be known as “Hallows Eve” and eventually that turned into Halloween. And Halloween did end up trumping Samhain, but it over-shadowed All Soul’s Day and All Saints Day, too, as the most popular secular holiday know to man, aside from maybe Christmas.

Good Vs Evil – Druids, Christains, and Samhain

Of course, it goes without saying the the Christians tried to do everything in their power to discredit the Celts and their Druidic Priesthood, thus making everything associated with their religion dark and evil. (sigh) Samhain, with its emphasis on the supernatural, was decidedly pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion’s supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. As representatives of the rival religion, Druids were considered evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. The Celtic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell. But the Churches strategy didn’t completely eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate attempts to define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious. Followers of the old religion went into hiding and were branded as witches. (sigh again…)

Dia de los Muertos

Of course, Dia de los Muertos, celebrated in Mexico and other countries around the world, is an All Saints/All Souls celebration, but it has a lot more a “pagan” feeling to it, as families create shrines, make offerings, and have ceremonies and processions for the dead. To me, although it is most decidedly Catholic in nature, I can definitely merge my Samhain with Dia de los Muertos with very little problem. So there you go. 2 or 3 holidays for the price of one!

Many Blessings! Victoria