The Celtic origins of All Saints' Day

Autumn has always been seen as a time of change in the cycle of life, and therefore as an ideal moment to remember those who are no longer with us. In fact, remembering the dead is a common trait in nearly all the world’s cultures. In our case, All Saints is one of a group of festivals, along with the Day of the Dead and Halloween, which all have a common origin: the beliefs of the Ancient Celts, which were partly based on remembering their dead.

According to Celtic culture, the yearly cycle is divided into two periods: light and dark. The light period began on 1 May, with the blossoming of nature and the herds going out to pasture, and the dark period began on 1 November, with the arrival of bad weather and the enclosure of farm animals. For a farming society like the Celts, the celebration of Samhain around the first of November, was an important festival because it marked the beginning of winter’s lethargy.

The arrival of Christianity in Celtic lands led to the festival being spread throughout all Christian territories and it eventually became the official day for remembering the dead. But this was a slow process, lasting approximately three hundred years: from the 8th to the 11th century, and the festival underwent notable changes, adopting religious connotations, although it also maintained some pagan touches. Even so, Samhain is still celebrated today in some places that used to be under the influence of the Celts, such as Galicia.

Centuries later, with the expansion of Christianity to the Americas, the All Saints festival came into contact with indigenous beliefs concerning the dead. This gave rise to the Day of the Dead, a set of indigenous festivals from various parts of Latin America which have become very popular here in recent years. One of the most spectacular is the one celebrated in Mexico, which was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.