El Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead

Halloween should be the genealogists’ holiday. Our Celtic ancestors believed that on this night, Samhain (pronounced sow-en), the dead walked the earth. It was possible to commune with those who had crossed over, and necessary to appease those of them who might have an idea they could return to the world of the living.

Our Norse ancestors had a similar celebration earlier in October, called Winter Nights, which celebrated the harvest and honored the disir (protective spirits). The ghosts of departed loved ones returned to feast with the living.

The Christian church took these pagan celebrations and turned them into All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2), when we honor the saints and remember the departed.

The name “Halloween” is a modernized form of “All Hallows’ Evening,” and this is the night where the customs of our pagan ancestors survive. We dress up, which was supposed to deceive the ghosts so they wouldn’t try to take over our bodies. We dance around, which was supposed scare off the ghosts. We share treats, which were originally bribes to pray for the ancestors of the giver.

Pagan or Christian, every genealogist has to love a night set aside to commune with ancestors. I know I do. Besides the fun, I say special prayers on Halloween.

This year I’m celebrating El Dia de los Muertos as well. This Hispanic holiday ostensibly celebrates All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but is really a survival of an Aztec holiday that fell in August. “Dead Guy,” a skeletal statue who has an honored place in our home gets neglected, but today I’m having a friendly dialog with him.

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