day of the dead

Book Excerpt from A Modern Celt: Day of the Dead by Mabh Savage

October, 2017

Day of the Dead


Samhain, for many on a Pagan path, is “the biggy”, the festival of all festivals, and much of this is to do with the day’s association with the dead and thus ghosts, spirits and other things otherworldly. It’s generally celebrated on October 31st although in Gaelic the word actually means “November” so the festival being named thus would seem to indicate that is to be celebrated at the start of November. This is probably because the Celts believed a new day started at sunset, so when fires were lit on the 31st October as the sun went down, it was already Samhain, the next day, and time to celebrate another point in the year when the veil is thin and one can almost speak to one’s ancestors, as they walk amongst us. Sometimes the night time celebrations are still called “Samhain Eve” rather than Samhain, and I think it’s key to understanding the Celts that we recognise that they weren’t taken too much by the time of day or the date, but more by splitting things into light and dark. Sunset was the end of the current day, therefore it was the beginning of a new day. Samhain was the halfway point between equal night and day (the autumn equinox) and the longest night (the winter solstice). Winter was darker; summer was brighter.


This is how I believe they saw the world, and this is how, as someone trying to understand their ancestors, I am also finding myself looking at the world. Even though we are, as a modern society, so obsessed with timekeeping and date stamping, it’s nice just to think “It’s cold and the sun is low after only a few hours, it must be winter. The moon is full and the sky is clear- it will be cold tonight. The leaves are yellowing; it is autumn.” It’s so much more special to watch the world change around you, to feel the turn of each season, than to mark its continuation by the flick of the page in a diary and waiting for dates to happen. The most physical evidence of any sort of calendar kept by a Celtic people is the Coligny Calendar, bronze plates dating from around the year 200 (although it’s thought the calendar usage may go back as far as 800 BCE) which show a calendar based on a 5-year cycle using both the solar and lunar cycles to describe an approximately structured year. This is not unlike our modern Gregorian calendar if you think about it- we have months roughly based on the cycle of the moon, although as we only have 12 now we stick in random days here and there (i.e. the 30 and 31-day months), and every 4 years when we’ve not managed to travel quite all the way around the sun, we get an extra day!


So here we are at Samhain. We now understand that the Celts were looking forward into the darker part of the year and preparing for winter, whilst at the same time feeling the touch of the other world; the fae, the Tuatha Dé Danann and indeed their own ancestors. Ever since I can remember this has always been a time to remember one’s own ancestors and honour them the best you can. This can be simply saying their names out loud, or holding a feast with their favourite food included. A common practice is to leave an image out of the ancestor or ancestors in question, and if no image is available or appropriate then something that either belonged to them or reminds you keenly of them. This is their physical link to you; this is how they know where to come through when they reach the veil. Offerings are left with this image or symbol, as a way of thanking your ancestor for what they have brought to you. Hopefully, your ancestor will see the gesture and be grateful, but also be at peace seeing that you are doing well and honouring your traditions; understanding yourself as a whole person, and acknowledging what came before you and what will come after; after all, by whole heartedly embracing this practice you accept that one day you will be on the receiving end of the gesture- whether through a direct blood descendant or even from friends or students- anyone you may have had significant and positive influence on.


As well as honouring our ancestors, we also accept that in the long run, they no longer belong here. Not that they are unwanted, but that they now reside somewhere else, and only at Beltane and Samhain can we be this close to them again. Samhain, starting at sunset, has the longer darkness, and therefore the greatest opportunity to light fires and candles as beacons to guide the dead, which I think is why this winter festival is more widely recognised as the day of the dead, rather than its summer counterpart, which is more about the continuity of life and fertility.


So at Samhain, there tends to be a threefold celebration. We welcome the ancestors- we draw them towards us somehow, we feel their presence and we celebrate their return. We spend time among them, enjoying their company like one would a friend you have not seen for years. Not only ancestors but friends and acquaintances past, including pets and working animals that may have been close to us. Because of this it can be a very bitter sweet time of year: although it’s wonderful to feel the presence of someone or something deeply missed, it also brings sharply into focus the original grief when you lost them. Because of that though, it can be a great way of dealing with grief. Sometimes we bottle things up too much, and Samhain has a tendency to bring to the fore feelings we would not normally have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s a good idea, because of this, to surround yourself with friends, family and loved ones or whoever can best support you through this.


Of course, you may be someone who genuinely deals with grief better on your own, but when you are also dealing with the potentially supernatural, it’s good to know that you are not alone; that you are not the only person who is feeling the presence of someone long gone but clearly not forgotten. So this is the second stage of Samhain: being with those we lost, and dealing with it either with happiness or grief while ensuring we are supported and making it as joyous as possible with feasting, drinking, and even gifts. Some celebrate Samhain as New Year too (understandable looking at how the Coligny calendar split the year into two halves), so again, more drinking, gifts and excuses for tomfoolery! The third stage is a little more solemn, and just as important. This is the stage where we feel the veil closing, and we say farewell to our ancestors (and other loved ones) and ensure we guide them on their way.


There are many different ways of doing this and I would not recommend that you practice rituals, rites or magic with the intention of guiding the dead without the guidance of someone experienced in such matters- quite frankly it can be a bit scary. More simply and traditionally, candles can be lit as symbolic beacons to show the dead their paths. can be played, for in Celtic tradition music is a gift from the otherworld and thought to be very magical indeed. Ancestral feasts are cleared away and images of ancestors are cleaned and put away until after the season is over, to remove temptation for the spirit to stay. It’s like saying, we’ve been happy to have you here, and we wanted to let you know how grateful we are for your influence in our lives. But we are the living; you are the dead. It’s time for us to get back to our lives, and for you to return to whence you came. I think it’s very healthy in that way; we accept that our loved ones are gone. We in no way cling on to them or expect them to return to us to be a permanent part of our lives, and in this way we can deal with our grief and move on, although it can take several years for grief to lose its keen edge of course. But we also accept that here is a time when we can celebrate them. Whether you believe that the dead physically (or metaphysically) return or not, how can anyone sneer at the idea of having a whole festival dedicated to love, remembrance and joy?






About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.

She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.


Follow Mabh on TwitterFacebook and her blog.








Let’s Spell it Out

November, 2010

The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos)

This time of year we either think of the Celtic holy day of Samhain or its American reinvention, Halloween.  For the purposes of this article, I strive to “spice things up” a bit, by sharing with you the Mexican Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos, the one day each year that Death takes off from work.

Beginning on October 31st and ending on November  2nd, the Day of the Dead, or Los Dia de los Meurtos, or Days of the Dead, is when revelers dress in costumes, feast and honor Death and those that have departed this realm.  This is a national holiday, and is considered by many to be the most important festival.

Global Customs of Honoring the Dead

It is not uncommon to find ancient practices from around the world where the spirits of lost loved ones are honored and revered.  Although most occur during the season of Autumn, others fall in the Spring or Summer.  For instance April has days set aside by the Chinese and the Germanic peoples.  The Chinese have Ching Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day), which has been popular since 3700 BCE, on either April 5th or 6th, depending on their calendar.  In Germany, Walpurgis or Walpurgisnacht, night of the goddess Walpurga, falls on Aprils 30th.  The Japanese celebrate the Festival of Souls, called either Obon or Bon, on either July 13th or August 15, depending on their calendar.  In the Fall, the All Saints Day Fiesta is celebrated in the Philippines and in Mexico as well as parts of America the Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated from October 27th through November 2nd.

Origins of the Day of the Dead

Although now patriarchal and Catholic, Mexico didn’t start out that way and neither did the honoring of the beloved ancestors.  Its roots go back to the Aztecs who believed that the souls of the dead returned to Mexico with the Autumnal Monarch Butterfly migration.  When the Spanish conquered and converted the native Central and South Americans, they brought along with them the European Christian practices of Hallowmas and All Souls Eve (October 31st) and All Saints Day or All Souls Day (November 1st or 2nd).  Many scholars believe that the Mexican Day do the Dead is a conglomeration of these customs with those of the Aztecs.  In northern America, the Puritans tried to extinguish the customs of the Pagans, but in Central and South America, the date and concept were perfectly plausible to the native peoples as it coincided with their already established Day of the Dead.

Spirits of the Day of the Dead

When hearing the word “fairy”, one usually thinks of the nature spirits of the Celtic peoples.  But, faeries are found worldwide, including in the Mexican and Central American folklore.  The spirits of the Day of the Dead celebration, who appear as pudgy children, are called Jimaninos, pronounced  heem-awn-neen-yo’s, (the feminine version is Jimaninas) which means “little children” or Angelitos, the spirits of dead children.  By whichever name they are called, they are usually shy, except during the Day of the Dead celebration.  They accompany the living during the festivities including dancing, feasting and visiting the cemeteries.  These sprits are not forgotten, in fact, special care is taken; men make small altars of clay upon which special food and treats made by women and toys are placed.  It is thought that at the stroke of midnight that these children, who do not fully understand that they are in fact dead, come and take the essence of the offerings.  Perhaps, like the American Halloween, the treats are to keep away the tricks; these faeries are known to play pranks on the day of the Dead.

Treats, No Tricks

Women are very busy all day long preparing food that will be enjoyed come sunset by both the living and the dead.  The living, all dressed up and carrying colorful candles or lanterns, take the food and drink to the local graveyard where everyone feasts in revelry until midnight, when they all go to midnight mass in a more solemn mood.  A plate of food that was set aside for the spirits of the departed, filled with their favorite dishes, is taken back home and set out either at the head of the kitchen table or on the family altar which is the power point of the home as well as the door between the living and the dead.  This way, any spirits who show up in the middle of the night will feel welcome.  These offerings of food for the deceased are called ofrendas, which means “mortuary food”.  The altars are more elaborate than usual for hits celebration, they are decorated with marigolds and skulls made from either marzipan or bread.  At one time actual skulls of the ancestors were decorated, but the Church frowns upon having a real skull, so this ancient Celtic and South American practice has been replaced by “skeletal treats”.  These skeletons and skulls are everywhere and made from bread, chocolate, molded sugar and candy.  Come dawn the following day, this food will be physically eaten by the living, but most people will tell you that is has absolutely no taste because the flavor, which is the astral essence of the food, had be spiritually “eaten” by the dead who came to visit the previous night.

Images of Death: Skulls, Ghosts and Graveyards

Similar to the American Halloween, there are oodles of decorations for the Day of the Dead celebration.  Everywhere are calaveras, which is Spanish for “skull”, but refers to all sorts of curios and mementos with the “death” theme.  These can be purchased by vendors in the town square and are used to decorate homes and villages.

Many stores will be closed on the Day of the Dead so that everyone as a family unit can participate in the preparation; including weeding, raking and decorating graves as well as setting up the altar in the home just in time for the festivities that start at sunset.

Villagers dress in brilliant costumes, including skeletons, mummies, ghosts or ghouls.  They parade through the town holding calacas, handmade puppets, and also carry an open coffin with a living person dressed as corpse inside.

Some families will arrive the night of October 31st while others celebrate on November 1st or 2nd.  They bring with them picnic baskets filled with the feast, red candles, incense, tequila and musical instruments so they can play lively music to the dead until midnight.

Tex-Mex Celebrations

The name for the Day of the Dead is slightly different on the northern side of the border.  It is either called El Dia de los Difuntos (the Day of the Deceased) or El Dia de los Finados (the Day of the Finished and/or Departed).The focus on the celebration is on the importance of the of the separation of the separation of the living and the dead but reconnecting the two through memories.   Again, this is both a social gathering as well as a religious practice.  Unlike the Mexican Day of the Dead, feasting is not the central theme of this event.  Instead, the focus is on the graveyard maintenance and decoration of the cemetery, where friends and relatives gather and storytelling.

The Spell/Ritual

The purpose of this magickal working is for you to make a spiritual connection with someone that you love that has moved on from this realm to that of the Summerland.  This could be done privately or if you would rather in a group setting.

Supplies: red candle, bowl of saltwater or Holy Water, lighter/matches, white flowers, picture of the deceased, offering (ofrenda or plate of food, or some other type of offering that your loved one would enjoy) and incense (to bring the friendly spirits near, use Cinnamon, Lavender, Mastic, Musk, Pepperwort, Red Storax, Saffron and Wormwood; to attune your senses to the sprit realm, use Balm of Gilead, Sage and Sandalwood; to assist seeing the spirits, use Amaranth, Mastic, Sage and Yarrow and to bring in the Mexican/Azteca energies, use Bay, Copal, Frankincense, Lemongrass, Marigold, Rosemary, Sage and Yerba Santa).

Altar decorations: if you wish, you may add Monarch Butterflies, Calacas (puppets), toys and treats for the Jimaninos/Angelitos and play music in the background.

Space Clearing: If you wish, either create Sacred Space or cast a Magick Circle in the manner of your tradition.

Statement of purpose:  stand at your altar and say:

“On this night when the Veil is thin

I/We honor the ancestors, both friend and kin;

I/We call to them for visitation

During this Day of the Dead Celebration.”

Acknowledgement of the Elements:

Light the incense and walk the circle/area in a clockwise direction while saying:

“By the power of Air and Fire

I/We bring about our deep desire

To spend time with family and friends

Whose life in this world did end.”

Put the incense down and pick up the bowl of salt water.  Sprinkle it around the area while walking clockwise and saying:

“By the power of Water and Earth,

I/We honor the cycle of life, death and rebirth;

Tonight we come together once again,

Let our love now enter in.”

Place white flowers in vases in the center of the circle on the altar to honor Spirit and say:

“By North, South, East and West;

Living and dead, we are blessed.

Spirit, guide us on our journey,

Love is the bond, and the key.”

Light the candle and focus on the picture of the deceased.  With your loving thoughts, send an invitation to them across time and space to join you.  The light is their “lighthouse” to better find you, so say:

“A spark in the night lights the way

So you may find me on this day.”

Offering: if you have prepared a plate of food, place it upon the altar and say:

Tonight we feast as we did before,

I ask that you walk through the door;

Stay with me as long as you wish

As I’ve prepared your favorite dish.

At this point, you could share stories and memories, recreate your own version of the parade or go to the cemetery and do some housecleaning.

You can end at the traditional stroke of Midnight, or whenever you feel is correct.  In your own words, thank your loved one for spending time with you and say your farewells.  If you cast a Circle, close it in the manner of your tradition.

After the ritual:

  • Leave the offering out overnight.  Custom says for you to eat it the next day, or, you could place it outside for the animals.
  • If possible, let the candle burn out or at least until midnight.
  • If you had toys for the Jimaninos/Angelitos, you can donate them to a local shelter.


  • Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews by Scott Cunningham
  • Entering the Summerland: Customs and Rituals of Transition into the Afterlife by Edain McCoy
  • Halloween by Silver RavenWolf
  • Rites of Passage: The Pagan Wheel of Life by Pauline Campanelli
  • A Witch’s Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy
  • When the Drummers Were Women by Layne Redmond