Updated: Nov 5, 2022
By Renata W.
When I first came to the US as a freshman at university, I was a bit of an exotic, and other students would ask me about how things were where I came from (Brazil). And when I happened to mention that the seasons there were the reverse of the seasons here, so that December was mid-summer, they would take some time to digest it, and then ask: “So when do they celebrate Christmas?” I was greatly amused, but it took me a long while to figure out that, though Christmas is a major holiday that celebrates the birth of the central figure in Christianity, those students might have been thinking of it (without, of course, considering the possibility) as a seasonal celebration. It does fall around the winter solstice, and though it does not snow a lot in Bethlehem, where the event the holiday marks took place, and nativity scenes, as they try to help visualize the scene, do not show the participants wearing wool and fur trim, snow, natural and fake, artificial icicles, and warm clothing are part of the pageant not only in the US, but around the world, including, incongruously, of course, in Brazil. I already knew, when I was asked that amusing question, that in Nordic lands, as the sun sinks lower and lower during shorter and shorter days as if it were departing, the custom was to light big fires, to call the sun back, which, of course, always worked. Candles and, later electric lights on Christmas trees look very much like a symbolic bonfire.
Then it occurred to me that Brazil has its own fiery winter solstice traditions. In June there are the feasts of various saints, remembered in fiery ways: St. John on the 24th, celebrating the birth of John the Baptist, and Saints Peter and Paul on the 29th to commemorate their martyrdom. There are fireworks pretty much every day, intensifying on the eves and nights of the saints’ days, and the skies are dotted with balloons made with tissue paper around a torch that is lit and whose warm air makes the balloons rise. The balloons are now forbidden, since they tend to come down with their torches still burning, setting fields, woods, and houses on fire. There are also feasts which, at least in the countryside, feature a large open fire (not so practical in the big city) and the custom of jumping over it once it has died down somewhat.
There are, I assume, Northern Hemisphere summer solstice celebrations, though the only one that occurs to me right now takes place in Portugal where, on St. John’s day, it is permitted to hit policemen on the head with garlic plants.
Halloween, however, does not seem to be directly associated with the movement of the earth around the sun, though it is, in its way, seasonal: it happens around harvest time, and at the beginning of winter, which also seems to be celebrated in various cultures. Harvest, after all, is a time of abundance when the crops are brought in, but also the beginning of the time when nothing will grow; the fields will lie “dead.” But it too becomes linked with religious observance and just as Christmas generally begins on the holiday’s eve, the most intense firework displays happen on June 23d, St. John’s eve.
Halloween (which actually means “the eve of all hallows,” that is, of “all saints”) falls on October 31st, eve of All Saints, the next day after which is “All Souls,” or the day of the dead. The specific form it takes differs, but what seems common is that it honors saints and then prays for the saints’ protection of and/or against the dead. Apparently, the general idea of an observance of one or both of those days arose in either Celtic or Germanic areas. In the early Middle Ages, various popes formalized and anchored various forms of dealing with saints and the dead. In the fifteenth century, days of obligation were instituted by the Church, involving ringing of bells and praying for the dead, and baking “soul cakes;” children would go from house to house collecting these cakes in exchange for praying for the dead, particularly relatives of the donors of the cakes. In some places at that time, there was a custom of leaving food on the graves of the deceased or of leaving food out overnight, so family ghosts could come and feast on it. In general, there were customs to deal with visits of ghosts, including wearing masks so that the ghosts of those who might have died with a grudge against the wearer would not recognize him or her. It was also a belief, in France and other European areas, that once a year, on All Souls, the dead would rise in the churchyards in their shrouds and dance on and around the tombs in a “dance macabre.,” It was customary in some places, to dress up as ghosts or evil spirits. One recognizes in all this the roots of trick-or-treating, of wearing costumes or masks, of costume parties, of skeletons and other scary beings displayed in people’s front yards and in the display of pumpkins, a reference to the harvest season.
It seems that in the New World—at least its Northern parts, Halloween was introduced by Anglicans and Catholics, and Puritans were against it. The holiday really took off, however, in the 19th century with heavy Scottish and Irish immigration. Famously, in Mexico there is the celebration of the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which can take place over more than one day, at the end of October and beginning of November, and involves gathering with friends and family to remember the dead, partaking of special baked goods, and leaving offerings of food at graves or home altars—some of these customs similar to those in the Old World.
In Brazil, I had heard of Halloween as a strange American celebration, though we of course were aware of All Saints and All Hallows (Todos os Santos and Finados), welcome because they were school holidays, finally, after almost two months without a break since September 7, Independence Day, but not observed in any more remarkable way. However, the last few times I visited at the right time for Halloween, I saw in many stores, the recognizable paraphernalia of the American Halloween: the pumpkins, the costumes, the masks. Almost like a second Carnaval, which introduces Spring, just as Halloween introduces Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
For more information on Dia de los Muertos, check out Martha V.'s article "Origin of Dia de los Muertos".