Keep the Dead in Halloween

I grew up in a non-religious household. We celebrated Halloween with trick-or-treating, but when I asked my mom what Halloween is all about, she said something like, “I don’t know, the harvest, I guess.” That didn’t make sense to me. What do scary things have to do with the harvest? Why do all the Disney cartoons say that ghosts wander around on Halloween night?

When I became pagan, Halloween was enhanced with spiritual meaning, just like Yule/Christmas and Easter were. I always felt like there was something more going on here, and finally I knew what it was.

I’ve been seeing some other blog posts about pagans having trouble reconciling the fun, festive atmosphere of modern secular American Halloween with the somber, serious business of honoring the dead for Samhain. Most pagans seem to want to keep those two things separate. Trick-or-treating just doesn’t go with honoring the ancestors, they say.

I just kept thinking over and over, “They obviously don’t live in an area with a large Hispanic population, do they?” I guess I’m lucky to live in South Texas surrounded by Hispanics celebrating Dia de los Muertos, so I can see how a culture successfully combines death and celebration. I think we pagans need to take a cue from them.

Yes, I have read some articles about how it’s cultural appropriation to combine Dia de los Muertos with Halloween, but the Hispanics around here don’t seem to mind. The Hispanic neighborhoods around here seem to do a better job celebrating Halloween than the white neighborhoods, judging from the elaborate decorations they put up. My husband and I decorate our house, but we’re kind of an exception. I really worry about Halloween being in decline because there are still a lot of people who think it’s evil and satanic. Many people have bought the idea that trick-or-treating is dangerous and would rather take their kids to the mall than let them roam their own neighborhood. The Hispanic people give me hope that at least they’re keeping the holiday alive while white people are abandoning it.

The local grocery store has Dia de los Muertos dishes, aprons, tablecloths, candles, and even reusable shopping bags. They have new Halloween/Dia de los Muertos shopping bag designs every year. This year they have skeleton cats and dogs, so I just bought a cat one. The few trick-or-treaters we do get in our neighborhood often use these bags for their candy. Last year I got a really cool skull plate that I use for offerings on my altar this time of year, and I got several of the candles for the altar as well.

It just doesn’t seem like cultural appropriation to incorporate Dia de los Muertos stuff into my Samhain/Halloween celebrations when it’s being sold at the grocery store where everyone in town shops. I don’t view Hispanics as being immigrants or foreigners here. If anything, it’s the other way around. They’re the natives and I’m the immigrant.

Maybe it’s not so much appropriation as syncretism. It’s not like I’m merging together completely unrelated things. The Catholic Church already did the syncretism for me when they incorporated Celtic Samhain and the Mesoamerican festivals of the dead into All Saint’s Day.

Dia de los Muertos is a festival in honor of the dead, but it’s also fun. That’s the whole point. One of the traditions is telling humorous anecdotes about the deceased loved one you’re honoring. The altars are covered in brightly colored marigolds, and all the skulls and skeletons look happy. They represent the souls of the dead who have come to join the party. Festive foods like sweets and alcohol are left as offerings for them. The living and the dead are both supposed to be having fun.

I think that having a holiday like this is something our culture sorely needs. We don’t like to think about death until we have to. We pretend it doesn’t exist. I’ve been thinking a lot about death since my father died. How our family dealt with his illness could be a textbook example of how not to deal with the terminal illness of a family member. Nobody wants to talk about death and dying, and so we don’t do a good job planning what we’re going to do when that time comes, and that causes a lot of unnecessary suffering, both for the dying person and their family. By denying death, we actually make it even sadder than it needs to be.

Maybe more pagans need to read The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (or see the animated movie based on it). Yes it’s a children’s book, but it’s about the true meaning of Halloween, which is about facing things that scare you, like death, in a fun way. When people think Halloween is only about trick-or-treat candy or sexy costumes at adult Halloween parties, we forget that important lesson. I think modern pagans have the potential to bring that back into Halloween.

I admit that honoring my Dad this Halloween will be difficult, like it was last Halloween (which was the first one after his death). His death is still recent enough that it still hurts, but one day I hope I’ll be able to do it happily.

Halloween is also considered by many pagans and heathens as when Wild Hunt starts riding, and that fits in well too. There are many Wild Hunt traditions, but they all seem to involve a god or other important spirit riding around with the spirits of dead humans. Just like in Hispanic belief about Dia de los Muertos, during the Wild Hunt it’s easier for dead souls to visit the living. In Urglaawe, the Wild Hunt is Frau Holle gathering up wandering dead souls, usually accompanied by Wotan, to guide them to the next life.

And yes, I know the Hunt can be scary. I think that’s because there’s no guarantee that all the dead souls wandering around are going to be friendly. Hispanic customs put the emphasis on friendly spirits that you want to welcome into your home, but if a person was a troublemaker in life, why wouldn’t they be the same in death? Some of them might be rowdy, mischievous spirits having a night on the town and getting a kick out of terrorizing the living, like living teenagers smashing pumpkins and egging houses.

I seem to remember reading that main danger of the Wild Hunt is that the dead souls might want to have you join them if you encounter them. This is a problem if you happen to like being alive right now and would like to stay that way for a while longer. There are several superstitions about how to avoid having this happen, so while you’re welcoming the beloved dead to enjoy the feast you have set out from them, it’s probably also sensible to do a little warding to keep the troublesome spirits away.

I wonder if the people who are anti-Halloween are actually feeling this slight bit of danger in the air. Oh, they may try to blame it on Satan, but what if it’s actually the Wild Hunt? For people who want to deny death so much, I can see how it can be frightening having so many ghosts wandering around.

There’s no need to separate modern American Halloween from honoring the Dead. What we need is to integrate them back together. Halloween is a time for transgressing boundaries. I can see why that would be upsetting to people who wish to maintain strict boundaries between life and death, safety and danger, joy and sorrow, tricks and treats, but that’s not how life works.

We need Halloween. We need to send our kids to school in superhero costumes and let them ring the doorbells of strangers at night and let them eat too much candy, when the rest of the year they have to be well-behaved and eat healthy food. We need to invite the souls of our dead loved ones to join our Halloween parties. We need to feel the hair on the back of our necks stand up when the Wild Hunt passes overhead. We need to visit the graves of our loved ones and remember to live life to its fullest because we never know when we’ll join them in the grave.

Pagans, we can do this. We can make Halloween mean something again.