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All Hallows Eve: A Family History Affair

Trick or treating child wearing a yellow duck costume

Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the US after Christmas! Consolidated Credit estimates that 69% of all Americans participated in some Halloween activity last year and we spent a record $10.6 billion on candy, decorations, costumes, and greeting cards.

Halloween actually has its beginnings with the ancient Celts, as Samhain (Sah-win or Sow-in depending upon the regional accent), the celebration of the Harvest and the changing of the seasons to Winter. The Celts believed that on the night before Samhain, the dead returned to this world and destroyed the remaining vegetation with their icy breath, clearing the land for winter. People left food and wine on their doorsteps to keep the spirits from becoming too angry, and would wear masks when they dared to leave the house to blend in with their unearthly visitors. The Catholic Church grabbed a hold of this idea in the 8th century, and turned it into All Saints Day, or all Hallows, which became today's "Halloween."

Have you ever heard the Peter, Paul and Mary song, "A Soalin'" wherein the singer is asking for a "Soul Cake?" This was from the tradition of the poor being given food in exchange for promised prayers for deceased relatives in Purgatory on All Souls Day, November 2 (and again at Christmas). It was also known as a "soulmass-cake" which were often set out on All Hallows Eve with crosses cut in the top to signify they were alms. The Scottish and Irish immigrants to the US in the 18th century brought this tradition with them. I always wondered what the heck this was about, and NOW I know. I had to share this! Link to the song below in case you would like to hear it.

Dia De Los Muertos poster with Catrinas and skulls

More recently, the Mexican customs of The Day of The Dead, were popularized by the Pixar movie, "Coco." This is a celebration of the lives of the ancestors, with parties, dances, parades and lots of food. Family picnics are held at the cemeteries where the ancestors' graves are cleaned and decorated with things they enjoyed while alive, like cigars, drinks, foods, and photographs of the dearly departed.

Many people today make altars (ofrendas) in their homes instead of at the cemetery where such decorations are usually frowned upon.

The complete ofrenda will include sugar candy skulls and skeletons (calaveras) which are hand me downs from Aztec rituals symbolizing birth and death, marigolds and copal incense whose fragrances will lead the dead back to earth, a bell to help them find their way, and tissue papers with holes cut in them (papel picado) for the souls to travel through. The image below is courtesy of the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

perforated colored tissue paper banners
Papel Picado banners for Dia de Los Muertos from the Minnesota Museum of Modern Art

But the Western Hemisphere is not the sole owner of Day of the Dead traditions! Korea's largest nation holiday is Chuseok, which is more like American Thanksgiving. Sometime in September or October depending upon the lunar calendar, the Koreans remember their dead and give thanks to them for their part in the recent bountiful harvest.

Buddhists and Taoists celebrate their ancestors for a whole month (Hungry Ghost Festival), which balances fear of being haunted with fun. Lanterns are placed on floats are pushed out onto bodies of water, and the further your lantern goes, the luckier you will be in the coming year. Hungry Ghosts have been known to haunt China and Cambodia. Japanese celebrate their Day of the Dead, or Obon, around mid-August by returning to their home towns, lighting giant bonfires to show their loved ones the way home, and they also float lanterns.

Japanese Obon Festival

By the way, does anyone know what the heck "Hallow" even means? According to Merriam Webster, it means "to make holy, or set apart for holy use," or "to respect greatly." One of the main themes of the movie "Coco" is remembrance. As long as someone remembers the deceased ancestors, tells their story, or shares their picture, they can cross back over to visit during the Day of The Dead celebrations. Isn't this the goal of the family historian? To learn, to share, and to remember? As the end of Family History Month approaches, it occurs to me that All Hallows Eve ought to be the official "Family History Day," instead of June 14. What do you think?

field of orange marigold flowers

What traditions do you have about Halloween in your family? Is it a religious celebration? Or all about the Tricks and Treats? Was it always that way? This is a great opportunity to open a dialogue to learn more about your family history, and perhaps, gain new insight that might help you break through one of your brick walls!

a colorful tower of wrapped presents

Ancestry is celebrating Family History Month with a 40% off sale on six-month memberships until October 31. MyHeritage still offers DNA tests for $39 with a free trial for 30 days, and then a 50% discount if you decide to go with an annual membership. If you're thinking about DNA for the Holidays, order now, and you may have some results to share when you open gifts!

Wishing you many, many more treats than tricks as your family research continues. There is always a free evaluation of your brick wall, just drop me an email and I'll take a look!

Thank you,

Leslie Ryan

No compensation is received for any links or referrals herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading:

Peter, Paul & Mary "A-Soalin'"

Wikipedia link about SoulMass-Cakes (there is a darker side!)

Minnesota Museum of Modern Art


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