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Dark Tales of Mystery / Geographies of Tradition
Day of the Dead, St. Andrew's Eve and Halloween
The Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead or The Illumination symbolizes the memory of those who passed into the afterlife, as its Latin name suggests: commemoratione omnium fidelium defunctorum, meaning “the commemoration of all deceased believers”. It is a well-known holiday, generally celebrated on November 1st, but there are also areas where it takes place the next day.
In Romania, Roman Catholic and Protestant communities celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Catholics also celebrate, one day later, on November 2nd, the Commemoration of the Dead.
The Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches celebrate the Commemoration of the Dead on the Saturday before The Sunday of the Last Judgment (before Passover) and on the Saturday before Whitsun (before Pentecost). They are commonly called Moşii, or Ancestors (for winter and summer, respectively). The commemoration of deceased parents, grandparents and ancestors takes place at this point. However, in areas of Western influence, such as Transylvania, Banat and Maramureș in Romania, the Orthodox and Greek Catholic believers commemorate those who have passed away (The Illumination) on November 1st. People go to church, and cemeteries to clean graves and decorate them with lighted candles and flowers. November 1st is The Day of the Dead or The Illumination, the day on which the dead are mentioned, the day when people’s thoughts turn to those who have passed away.
According to popular tradition, on the first day of November (popularly called Brumar) the gates of Heaven open and the two worlds, earthly and heavenly, can communicate. Lighting candles and carrying flowers are a way for those on Earth to “meet” those in Heaven. For Catholics, the Day of the Dead (Illumination) is celebrated on November 2nd. In Transylvania, the tradition was integrated into a multi-denominational environment, and as such it is celebrated on the evening of November 1st.
It is a special atmosphere: the cemeteries are illuminated with the flames of candles. A show of lights is created on graves, where people gather, whole families, and reminisce with those who passed into the otherworld.
It is said that it is wise to give alms on this day. In some villages, fresh water is taken to graves. It is said that the dead are thirsty and need to be given alms, in addition to food. The Day of the Dead is a day when the living remember those who are no longer alive and light candles for their souls. They remember the dead and say a prayer for them.
Candles lit at graves are a symbol, so that those in the afterlife might find their way with greater ease, now when the gates between the two worlds are open. On this eve, the graves become small altars of light.
The Illumination is a special day for Christians, a day of meditation and prayer, with respect for the dead, and the atmosphere created by the lit candles that decorate the graves invites you to silence and remembrance.
As is understood by what we previously mentioned about The Day of the Dead, there are certain symbols of this day: candles and flowers. The ultimate symbol is the candle. The predominant flowers on graves are chrysanthemums; these are preferred by Romanians for honoring the dead.
A Franciscan monk explained the meaning of “Illumination” as being a day of remembrance, of recollection, of prayer for the souls of loved ones who are no longer among us.
St. Andrew's Eve
In Romanian popular belief, there is another night of the dead, that night from November 29th to 30th, which is St. Andrew’s Eve (the Eve being November 29th, and the 30th being St. Andrew’s Day). Then, doors and windows are anointed with garlic, to be protected from the undead, who walk about on that night. The Strigoi, or undead, are ghosts who are said to become incarnate on this night and arise from their graves. It was believed that garlic keeps them at a distance, as they don't like it. Another belief of is that no one should sweep, nor throw anything away, in order to avoid the undead. There was also the belief that some living people were undead, those who had tails. Whether they are humans (dead or living undead) or animals (wolves), they are said to find an echo in the season’s atmospheric disturbances. The blizzard’s turmoil and the wind’s whistling have often been associated with the restless souls of the unclean dead, who now gain power and act unhindered on Earth (This is comparable to All Saints’ Day).
Like Halloween, The Day of the Dead or The Illumination is a holiday of Celtic origin, brought by Catholics in northwest and southwest Romanian territory. Both regions boast various superstitions regarding the dead, various traditions that take place during these holidays are also similar. St. Andrew's Eve is also linked to the afterlife, through the presence of the undead, restless souls of death.
Every year, on October 31st, Halloween takes place. This holiday is attributed to the Americans, even if its origins seem to be European. It is a pagan holiday, celebrated in several countries besides the United States of America (Ireland, Puerto Rico, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand). Over time, it has become known in other countries, where various activities are organized on this occasion.
One theory is that many Halloween traditions are influenced by ancient Celtic festivals celebrating the harvest, with pagan roots, one of which is known as “Samhain”, which was held on October 31st. The purpose of the festival was to gather crops, and the costumes used, the decorations in the houses, the pumpkins turned into lanterns, the masks/make-up and the very well-known “trick-or-treat” were similar to those used today for Halloween. Other theories claim that Halloween began as a Christian holiday, having its roots in All Saints’ Day, which took place on November 1st.
Halloween is a holiday full of mystery, magic and superstition.
One of the symbols of Halloween is the pumpkin, perhaps its most important. Its main character is Jack O’Lantern, a stingy man who metamorphosed into the famous pumpkin. This character is known to play tricks on everyone, and even provoke the Devil. When he dies, the gates of Heaven close and the Devil himself refuses to receive him in Hell. Jack O’Lantern becomes frightened and asks for a guide so he can walk in the dark. He receives a lantern, a tool that later becomes his guide forevermore. The first jack-o’-lanterns were made from turnips, potatoes and beets.
Children wear the scariest costumes, walk from house to house and ask to receive sweets. In this sense, candy sales increase considerably on Halloween. Millions of pounds of candy are bought on this occasion. Some people pay to disguise their animals on Halloween night. Specific to this holiday are also horror movies, scary stories, playing pranks, lighting fires, etc.
Many superstitions regarding Halloween exist. It is said that if an unmarried girl puts a rosemary flower and a silver penny under her pillow, she will see her soulmate in a dream; if on Halloween night you hear footsteps or noises behind you, it is said that a spirit from the afterlife has come after you, and you must not turn around; if a bat flies around the house or near the house, it is said that there are evil spirits in the room; if you notice a spider in the house on the wall on Halloween night, it means that the spirit of a loved one is watching over you; at Halloween dinner the diners must speak, in order to attract the spirits into communicate, into transmitting something; it is said that when the witches were preparing for this feast, they rubbed their skin with an ointment that gave them the sensation of flying; another superstition is related to the black cat, which has been said since ancient times to be unlucky, and was believed to be an incarnation of the devil, being sacrificed for Halloween.
As it is on All Saints’ Day, in many countries, including the United States, Halloween is celebrated in connection with All Saints’ Day, although the holiday is generally limited to October 31st.
All these moments of celebration we have presented take place towards the the end of the year, in autumn, when the day shrinks in comparison to the night. The traditions and customs of these festive moments create a bridge between the real world of the living, and the fantastic world of the afterlife.
Ep. 6: Dark Tales of Mystery / Geographies of Tradition
Text by Flavia Paula Stoica, museographer at the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania. Translated into English by Andreea Scridon. Presented by Andreea Scridon. Videography by Dragoș Popa.
Music source: the Ethnological Archive of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant:
A production of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York and the Ethnographical Museum of Transylvania in Cluj-Napoca (2021).