Paganism is a Nature Based religion (as practised by the ancient Celtic people), centering around that we call the Wheel Of the Year. This follows the seasons and the cycle of Birth (Spring), Growth (Summer), Fruitfulness (Autum) and Death (Winter), all of which are equally necessary. The Pagan festivals (called Sabbats) are celebrate seasonal changes like the Equinoxes, longest day, shortest day, beginning of the harvest, first signs of Spring and so on.
The biggest Festival is Samhain and marks the beginning of the Pagan New Year, and this has become known as Halloween, and takes place at the end of October. I will point out tho, that as the festivals follow the seasons, in the Southern Hemisphere Samhain falls in May, not October.
The festival marks the point in the year when they Winter months are on their way. In the past , this was they time when people took stock of the supplies they had harvested to see them through the winter. If supplies were short, they would slaughter the animals they knew would not make it through the Winter and this was also the last opportunity for fresh food to be eaten before the Spring. In some cultures even today, such as those in the Artic Circle, the elderly of the tribe would refuse all food and drink at this time, effectively sacrificing themselves for the good of their people.
Before I go any further that, despite what Hollywood would have you believe, Pagans DO NOT believe in the devil! We seek balance in all things so we do believe in opposites, Summer and Winter, Day and Night, Light and Dark etc. We do not see these as 'good' and 'bad' as we know that one cannot exist without the other and we need both in order for our world to exist.
Anyway, back to the subject, Pagans believe at the the time of this celebration the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest and it is possible for spirits to pass between the worlds. At all Samhain celebrations a place is set for any spirits of family members who have gone before if they want to join in the celebration. Pagans, do not summon spirits (as it is felt that it is not our right to disturb the peace of those who have gone before), but those who wish to come are welcome. It is traditional for a lit candle to be placed in the window to guide the welcome spirits home and to deter any unwelcome ones.
This is thought to be the origin of pumpkin lanterns (sometimes called Jack-o-lanterns).
Samhain became the Halloween we are now familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practises of the Celtic people. As attempts to wipe out 'Pagan' festivals only suceeded in strengthening the Celtic resolve, Pope Gregory the 1st instructed his missionaries in 601AD to try a new tactic. Rather than trying to obliterate the native peoples customs and beliefs, the Pope instructed the missionaries to use them to their favour and consecrate them to Christ and allow their contiuned practice.
So the Christian feast of All Saints Day was assigned to November 1st. The day honoured every Christian saint, especially thoses that did not have their own 'Saints Day'.
This feast day was meant to be a substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic people and , eventually, replace it forever. However, this didnt happen, and in the 9th century the Church tried again to supplant Samhain by establishing November 2nd as All Souls Day - a day when the living prayed for the souls of the dead. But, once again, the traditional customs of Samhain lived on.
All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (halllowed meaning sanctified or holy) continued ancient Cletic traditions. The evening prior to the day was a time of intense activity, both human and supernatural. People contiuned to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were through to be evil. People thought to pacify these supernatural beings by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening and then the Hallowe'en that we know today.
The Mexican festival El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of The Dead) celebrated at the same time, is thought to be the same as Haloween. There are similarities ( both celebrate the dead and take place on 31st October) but once again, the Church tried to supplant the festivities with All Saints and All Souls Day.
Mexican Celebtraions begin on 31st October with Young Souls Day and November 1st and 2nd are All Saints and All Souls Days. Celebrations in Mexico start with families cleaning the graves of their relatives. Weeds are removed, and the graves are decorated with flowers ( marigolds being one of the most important), photos and candles, and altars are erected near the gravesite. Food is placed on these altars, and offered to the departed as a gesture to show the departed they are still loved.
The Day of The Dead is thought to have originated with the Aztecs and Mayans. They believed that on this day, the souls of their departed would come to visit and feast with them, and this is still the belief that is held today.
During El Dia de los Muertos, Mexicans put on costumes of ghouls, ghosts, mummies and skeletons and walk through towns and villages carrying an open coffin. The local vendors place fruit, flowers and sweets into the coffin as it passes their markets.
Sugar skulls are also a part of the Mexican clebrations. These skulls are gifts for the departed souls of the children in a family, and are exchanged among the living children. On Young Souls Day it is believed that the souls of departed children return to earth in the late afternoon to join in the festivities.
Enjoy your Halloween (however you celebrate). :o)
The Real Witches Handbook by Kate West
American Folklife Centre
Halloween in Mexico