Halloween: A Celebration of Mortality

by Christina Pyrgaki

I love Halloween, more so than any other holiday, and this is rather curious since Halloween is not celebrated in Greece, my home country. It was in 1993 when Tim Burton released The Nightmare Before Christmas that I first heard about Halloween and I fell in love with it! I have always loved scary stories, movies, and books, but Tim Burton’s classic first introduced me to a holiday that celebrated darkness in a unique manner, and the fourteen-year-old me was enchanted forever.

I moved to Denver, Colorado just days before the Halloween of 2002, and I could hardly wait to experience Halloween in this country. October in Denver is a month of spectacular colors and nature sets a beautiful scene for the holiday. Red and yellow leaves barely hang from the trees, waiting for a slight breath of chilly air to swirl them around until they softly land on the sidewalks and the decorated yards. Front yards often become fake cemeteries with Styrofoam tombstones and crosses, with the occasional radius and a set of phalanges coming out of the ground. White sheets hang from the trees, giving a ghostly welcome to visitors and guests. I could barely contain my excitement walking around, taking in both the beauty of nature and the omnipresent spirit of Halloween! My first Halloween party in the USA, however, left me slightly disappointed. I walked into the party expecting ghouls and goblins, witches and undead creatures, but instead I got sexy nurses, Futurama characters, and even then President G.W. Bush. Halloween was not, then, the dark celebration I expected; rather, it had become a kind of cultural Frankenstein, combining elements of Carnival and the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain—two very different celebrations.

Carnival has its origins in the ancient Roman Festival of Saturnalia and ancient Greek Dionysian Festival. Both these festivals celebrated the rebirth of nature that comes with spring, fertility, and life’s pleasures. Carnival, which takes place during the four weeks preceding the Easter Lent, faithful to the celebration of life’s pleasures, connects individuals with the playful side of their personalities and allows them to break away from social conventions and appropriate behavior. Both the Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Church, after failing to eradicate the pagan rituals of Carnival, resolved to embody Carnival in their traditions—a common church practice when it came to pagan traditions resilient throughout human history.

Halloween is the polar opposite of Carnival. The former has its origins in Samhain, a pagan festival that marks the beginning of winter, and the death of nature before its spring rebirth. Necessary as this death was for rebirth to happen, winter was scary—especially in an era of limited resources and shelter, when a long winter could literally cost lives. So, the Celts made this day a celebration of death in an effort to ostracize the fear of death. According to the Celtic tradition, on the night of October 31, the souls of those that have passed away during the year wander the earth before they pass on to the world that awaits them. The living wore ghoulish costumes to fit in with the unearthly visitors and to disguise themselves among them. Treats were left at the doorsteps of houses to appease the spirits—this practice evolved into  “Trick or Treat.”

As I already mentioned, in Greek Orthodox tradition, there is nothing similar to Halloween, but recently I realized that there is something that could be thought of as equivalent to Halloween: the four last Saturdays of the Easter Lent which are called Psychosavata─spelled ψυχοσάββατα, pronounced [psee-ho-sa-va-ta] and translated to “Saturdays of the souls.” During these days, the pious churchgoers, mainly the women in the family, cook Koliva as a humble offering to the dead. Koliva is a mixture of boiled kernels of whole grain, ground walnuts, sugar, finely chopped parsley, covered with confectioners’ sugar, decorated with Jordan almonds and shaped to resemble a freshly-filled grave. The tradition of offerings to appease the dead originates in ancient Greece, but the Church, just as with Carnival, after failing to eradicate the pagan tradition of offerings to the departed, embraced it in its own tradition. Koliva is blessed by the priest during the evening Mass and distributed to the Mass attendees in memory of the family’s departed, while part of the mixture is spread on the graves of the ancestors. I still remember walking among the graves at dusk with my grandmother as a very young child. We would make a stop, first at her parent’s grave to scatter Koliva on the tombstones, and then at my grandfather’s parents’ graves to do the same. I was too young to understand the meaning and significance of what my grandmother was doing, and too busy trying to wrap my head around the fact that my grandmother had parents and what it meant that they were dead! I was not able to make the connection between Psychosavata and Halloween until very recently since Psychosavata does not involve any of the graphic images of death that one encounters in Halloween, e.g. skulls and skeletons, and there is no mention of ghosts or ghouls. The dead are referred to as the “sleeping ones” and their souls are thought to visit our world in the form of moths. I am not sure whether the lack of graphic images of death in Psychosavata is due to excessive squeamishness of the Greek people towards the supernatural or the influence of the Church, but I do know that one of the reasons I like Halloween is because it comes with an abundance of such images. They serve as a reminder of mortality and darkness, and although I realize ghouls and ghosts do not exist, what they symbolize helps me keep things in perspective. Much like the ancient Celts, I like to face the darkness (the one that accompanies the winter, the one residing in the souls of humans, including my very own), make friends with it, and try to overcome it as best I can.

So, this Halloween, once more I will make peace with the idea of the upcoming winter; I will remember my beloved grandmother, who I know would agree that Halloween is more fun than Psychosavata, and think about mortality as a fact of life. Afterward, I will put on my witch’s hat, grab my broom, go out with friends who make me laugh, and celebrate my mortal heart off! Nobody can avoid mortality, but one can temporarily defeat it by living life to the fullest and that is what my Halloween is about. Have a great Halloween everyone!


David Skall, Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2002)

Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

October 2012