Halloween, Samhain, Allhallowtide & Dia de los Muertos: legends abound!

Kid's fingers pressing eye onto Jack-o-Lantern decorated caramel apple

Photo by Personal Creations, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, OCTOBER 31 and TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 1 and WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 2: From mulled wine and apples to costumes and candy, deck the halls with fright and get ready for the spookiest night of the year: Halloween!

Drawing on ancient beliefs of wandering souls and spirits at this time of year, some traditions of Halloween shadow the rituals of an early Gaelic festival known as Samhain, which resonated across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Today’s Wiccans observe Samhain as a Sabbat, while Pagans—including Neopagans and Celtic Reconstructionists—attempt to observe its rituals as close as possible to their original form.

Beyond Scotland, Ireland and the migration of Scots and Irish to other parts of the world, the tradition of Halloween is fairly new in the long sweep of global culture. Of course, Western influence is potent stuff, and Western images of witches, black cats and trick or treating now have circled the planet. Halloween slowly picked up speed and now is observed as far from the Celtic homeland as Asia and Africa. Today, it’s common for children around the world to dress in costume, for adults to hold costume parties and for everyone to try a hand at carving jack-o’-lanterns. In some countries, bonfires and fireworks are common additions to nighttime trick-or-treating.

Group of three kids in Halloween costumes

Photo by popofatticus, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? The first record of pumpkin carving in America was penned in 1837; by the 1930s, so many Americans were trick-or-treating that mass-produced Halloween costumes were introduced in stores.

For Christians, the triduum of Halloween recalls deceased loved ones and martyrs; in Mexico and Latin American countries, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) vibrantly reflects these types of observances. Secularly, Halloween is a time for costumes, pumpkins and candy, though for centuries, this time of the year has been regarded as an occasion when the veil between this world and—the other-world—is at its thinnest point.


Born of a pastoral people, Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales. Ancient pagan traditions regard this as a night beyond all nights; the beginning of the dark half of the year; the final harvest, and a space in time when spiritual veils are lifted. Even the earliest cultures believed that spirits could access our world most easily at this time of year, so bonfires were lit to protect and cleanse people, livestock and pastures. Feasts were prepared, and the spirits of deceased ancestors were invited into the home with altars. Evil spirits were kept away with “guising” (costuming to fool the spirits), and turnip lanterns were often set in windows to scare evil spirits or to represent spiritual beings—a custom that likely evolved into the modern jack-o-lantern.

Today, many Pagans and Wiccans keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.


In worldwide Christian tradition, millions still observe “Allhallowtide,” which is the name of this triduum (or special three-day period) that begins with All Hallows Eve and continues through All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. While Catholics, Anglicans and many other denominations still have an “All Souls Day” on their liturgical calendars, many Protestant and evangelical churches have abandoned this traditional three-day cycle.

Did you know? The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and is also known as All Hallows Eve. All Saints’ Day is alternatively referred to as its counterpart: All Hallows, or Hallowmas.

Dancers in colorful Dia de los Muertos skirts and clothes, with faces painted

Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Chihuahua City, Mexico. Photo by Ted McGrath, courtesy of Flickr

The most popular of the three holidays in congregations coast to coast is All Saints Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. Millions of families will attend Sunday services on November 1 that include special remembrances of members who have passed in the previous year. Still mourning someone in your community? Show up at a local church observing All Saints Day and there likely will be a time to remember that person.


Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.


Decorating your home for Halloween? Get creative ideas at DIY Network.

For the more sophistocated crafter, Martha Stewart offers up ideas on homemade decorations.

Kids can give it a try with ideas from FamilyFun.

Memorial Day: Commemorate fallen soldiers, honor history and kick off summer

Soldiers holding flags, one saluting, white navy uniformed men in back, on grass conducting ceremony

A 2013 Memorial Day ceremony in California. Photo by Presidio of Monterey, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 30: Patriotic parades, solemn ceremonies and the unofficial start of summer mark Memorial Day in the United States, observed annually on the last Monday of May. In some communities, Americans young and old line the streets for parades. Many take time to listen to veterans’ stories and pay respect to fallen soldiers.

If you are reading this column and care about the lives of veterans and their families, we recommend that you learn more about a book, 100 Questions and Answers about Veterans, produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began after the Civil War.

Who was “first”? Many claims have been made about which community first began honoring fallen soldiers in the Civil War era. Wikipedia summarizes several of them:

A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. Women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers’ graves in 1862, but not Union soldiers’ graves. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.

Library of Congress preserves this photo taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.

The Library of Congress preserves this photo, taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.

The events in Charleston were documented by historian Stephen Blight. If you care to delve more deeply into that story of courageous former slaves who dared to hold the observance in Charleston in 1865, click on the historic photo or right here to jump back to some of our earlier coverage.

The first official Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery—May 30, 1868—drew a crowd of 5,000 people, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. By 1890, each state in the North had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states didn’t follow suit until after World War I. (Wikipedia has details.) As the nation and its memorial holiday evolved, Decoration Day was recognized as a day of remembrance for all soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for their country. Gradually, the holiday became known as Memorial Day, and in 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the date from a fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May. That law took effect in 1971.

In cemeteries across the nation, small American flags are placed at each veteran’s grave for Memorial Day remembrances and, among some families, flowers are placed on fallen ancestors’ gravesites.

National Memorial Day Concert

Click on this image to visit the concert’s website.

Don’t Miss the May 29 Concert

Each year, a National Memorial Day Concert is held in Washington D.C.—this year, at 3 p.m. on Sunday May 29, carried live by PBS and NPR. The program will be co-hosted by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise. The concert is broadcast to U.S. troops serving around the world on the American Forces Network, reaching more than 1,000 outlets in more than 175 countries and on board U.S. Navy ships. This year’s concert lineup includes The Beach Boys, Katharine McPhee and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Father’s Day: Celebrate America’s salute to 70.1 million dads across the nation

Father and young son looking at camera, close-up shot

Thanks, Dad! Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, JUNE 21: On the third Sunday of June, Americans from coast to coast are saying just one thing: “Thanks, Dad!” Since 1972, Father’s Day has been an official holiday in the United States.

Census estimates place America’s dads at approximately 70.1 million, and President Barack Obama encourages fathers to take the Fatherhood Pledge (here). Though several attempts were made for a commemoration of fathers, it was Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, whose proposal became today’s Father’s Day.

Did you know? Both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were first observed in a Methodist church.

After hearing a sermon for Mother’s Day at Central Methodist Episcopal Church, Sonora Dodd suggested to her pastor that a similar day be set aside for fathers. Dodd’s father—a Civil War veteran who raised six children as a single parent—inspired the Father’s Day founder to encourage a sermon for dads at her church. Several clergymen took to the idea, and on June 19, 1910, multiple Father’s Day sermons were presented throughout Spokane. (Wikipedia has details.) In the decades following, Dodd would secure trade group sponsors for the holiday, and by 1938, the Father’s Day Council was was responsible for commercial promotion. Many feared the over-commercialization of Father’s Day, but nonetheless, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation for fathers—designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day—in 1966. Six years later, in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed it into law.


Black-and-white of man wearing suit and tie, isolated color of blues and white on necktie

Think beyond the necktie! Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Looking to spend some time with Dad today? Activity options are endless, but if you’re stuck, check out USA.gov for suggestions of family activities, guides to national parks, museums, zoos and more.

Kids looking for a homemade gift idea? U.S. News has a multitude of ideas. The bonus? DIY gift suggested are even separated by age group. Creative older kids and adults can also craft Dad a gift with ideas from Martha Stewart.

Not sure what to buy Dad? News articles abound with gift ideas, but we love USAToday’s list to get Dad tech-equipped: from data-infused fitness apparel to the iGrill for ensuring a perfectly grilled piece of meat, we’re intrigued. For a good laugh, we love these 35 gift ideas from Real Simple, ranging from a functioning golf mug to a portable briefcase barbecue grill. Wondering what Dads overseas might get? The Telegraph has a roundup of inexpensive and amusing ideas, from beer-flavored jelly beans to animal skeleton playing cards to a horror novel inscribed on toilet paper.

Cooking Dad his favorite meal? Find recipes especially appropriate for Father’s Day at AllRecipes and Food Network.

Watching a flick with Dad? Find a list of movies fit for Father’s Day at TechTimes, from Father of the Bride to Mrs. Doubtfire to The Pursuit of Happyness.

Flag Day: Honor the Star-Spangled Banner and observe National Flag Week

“Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
John Adams, June 14, 1777

Close-up of American flag

Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 14: Fly Old Glory high and host a patriotic summer gathering—it’s Flag Day, the United States’ annual commemoration of the adoption of the national flag.

Did you know? About 150 million American flags are sold each year, according to a trade group representing flag manufacturers. Some are made by American workers; some are imported from countries around the world. If you care about the origin of the flag you buy, check the labels carefully.

The tradition of honoring the June 14, 1777, adoption of our flag by the Second Continental Congress wasn’t widely celebrated in America until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation. In 1949, Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. Though Flag Day isn’t a federal holiday, the President of the United States proclaims its observance annually and designates the week of June 14 as “National Flag Week.”

Did you know? The date of June 14 is also the birthday of the United States Army.

References vary regarding who originated the modern observance of Flag Day, but Wisconsin grade school teacher Bernard J. Cigrand is universally recognized for his tireless efforts. In 1885, 19-year-old Cigrand held an observance of Flag Day at Stony Hill School, displaying a flag and asking students to write about its significance. From the late 1880s, Cigrand spoke nationally for an American flag day. (Wikipedia has details.)

The first public proposal for a day honoring the United States flag was part of an article composed by Cigrand, entitled, “The Fourteenth of June.” Further, Cigrand became editor-in-chief of American Standard, the magazine of a group in Chicago that promoted due respect of American emblems. Cigrand became president of the American Flag Day Association. When Cigrand was 50 years old, President Wilson issued a proclamation for a nationwide observance of Flag Day; in 1949, President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating the day.

Through the centuries, there have since been several redesigns of the patriotic banner. (Learn more from AmericasLibrary.gov.) The flag flown today was last changed in 1960, with the addition of Hawaii to the United States.


Why wait until the Fourth of July for some tri-colored fun?

  • Kids can get artistic with red, white and blue-themed crafts in honor of their favorite Disney characters, at Disney.com.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Americans lend a hand in honor of Dr. King

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Man and dark-skinned boy digging shovels into dirt while others look on

Volunteer to serve others in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Rachel Feierman, Courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JANUARY 19: Serve the community, learn more about civil rights and remember a legendary life on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. An American federal holiday marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the third Monday in January annually brings the celebration of the pivotal figure in American history. During his lifetime, King worked ceaselessly for the civil rights movement and nonviolent activism. Following his assassination in 1968, a campaign for a federal holiday in King’s name began circling almost immediately. Fifteen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law. Today, Americans are urged to honor the “King Day of Service” by spending the day doing something Dr. King viewed as unparalleled: serving others.

AN INSPIRING RESOURCE—Daniel Buttry’s Interfaith Peacemakers project has published this inspiring story about Dr. King’s life. Readers are welcome to republish and share Buttry’s story about King with friends.


Black-and-white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in suit with microphones, speaking outdoors

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

King was born January 15, 1929. He became a Baptist pastor and helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership conference, serving as its first president. In 1963, King helped to organize the March on Washington and, there, delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.

When a bill was introduced for a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King, several representatives argued that an additional paid holiday would be too expensive and that Dr. King, having never held public office, was ineligible. Supporters of the bill began rallying the public, and when Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday” in 1980 to raise awareness of the campaign, 6 million signatures were collected. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill that established a federal holiday on November 2, 1983.


Federal legislation to transform Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into a national day of service was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Since that year, millions of Americans have volunteered their time on the third Monday of January, in efforts to help communities across the nation.

Interested in volunteering? Find a Toolkit to plan your Day of Service, or register an event, at NationalService.gov. Also, find free lesson plans for grades K-8, or share your volunteering experiences at Serve.gov.

Black Friday: When to open? Close? The debate rages in 2014

Row of shopping carts in colors purple, orange and blue

Will you be among the millions shopping on Black Friday this year? Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 28: Post-turkey sleepiness doesn’t stand a chance with the millions of shoppers hitting stores on Black Friday, an American holiday shopping custom that has skyrocketed in recent years. Original use of the term “Black Friday” was associated negatively with the less-than-ideal conditions that occurred from the shopping chaos of the day following Thanksgiving. As years passed, though, the term morphed into its current meaning: as a day that retailers move from operating at a financial loss (“in the red”) to a period of profit (“in the black”). (Wikipedia has details.)

Black Friday is unofficially considered the start of the holiday shopping season, although holiday-themed marketing starts earlier each year.

In recent years, retailers have been opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday, with some pushing their hours into the evening of Thanksgiving. This year, some major retailers are proudly announcing that they will not make their employees work on Thanksgiving Day, despite the loss of profits. (New York Times has the story.) Internationally, Black Friday, along with its corresponding Cyber Monday and Cyber Week, has gained immense popularity.


From its origins describing the chaos of post-Thanksgiving shopping, Black Friday only gained its No. 1 ranking as the busiest shopping day of the year in 2003. (Prior to 2003, Black Friday made the list of top-10 busiest shopping days of the year.) For several years, stores opened their doors at 6 a.m. on Black Friday, but in 2011, major retailers like Target, Kohls, Macy’s and Best Buy opened at midnight. In 2012, Walmart and others announced sales as starting on Thanksgiving evening; this year, Walmart will span its best deals over a period of five days.

This year, more than two dozen nationwide retail chains—including Costco Wholesale, Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Crate and Barrel—have announced that store employees will be able to enjoy the entire Thanksgiving holiday away from work. In Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island, “blue laws” ban stores from being open on Thanksgiving Day. (Read more from the Huffington Post.)

Though their Thanksgiving holiday occurred weeks ago, Canadians have been getting into the spirit of Black Friday during the past decade, and 2012 saw the biggest Black Friday to date in Canada. Online retailers like Amazon and Apple have begun reaching out to the United Kingdom, and Black Friday was promoted in Australia by Online Shopping USA in 2011. Last year, Forbes reported that Cyber Monday had gained unprecedented popularity.

Are millennials to blame for the demand on Thanksgiving Day shopping? Some surveys have found that millennials are much more eager to shop on the American holiday than those of the Baby Boomer generation, TIME reported recently. Yet when all factors are taken into consideration, millennials also stand by the idea that employees should be able to spend Thanksgiving Day with their families—even if it means slowing down on the 24/7 deals that millennials have become accustomed to.

Thanksgiving: Recall Pilgrims and Wampanoag on America’s holiday

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Abraham Lincoln, October 1863, Proclamation for Thanksgiving

Vintage depiction of little girl in blue dress with red bow holding mirror and showing a turkey his reflection

Thanksgiving greeting card, c.1870. Photo courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 27: Savor the tantalizing smells and clasp your hands together in gratitude, for the holiday of (American) Thanksgiving. ReadTheSpirit has lots of Thanksgiving-related resources, sparked by last year’s 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of the first annual nationwide observance in 1863. Here is our extensive Resource Page on Lincoln and the Season of Gratitude.

You’ll find a Thanksgiving prayer in the words of Abraham Lincoln that you can use with family and friends, plus this year we have a news story from a town in Belfast, Maine, right along the Atlantic coast, where people are gathering for a potluck dinner to mark this “Season of Gratitude” and remember Lincoln’s original proclamation.


Of course, most Americans know that there were earlier Thanksgiving events down through the centuries. In 1621, Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans shared such a feast in Plymouth. Lincoln may be the founder of our annual holiday tradition, but that very early cross-cultural dinner in Plymouth still inspires millions of Americans.

That Thanksgiving celebration melded two very different cultures: the Wampanoag and the Europeans. For the Wampanoag, giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts was an established custom. A plentiful harvest was just one of several reasons for a Wampanoag ceremony of thanks. For European Pilgrims, English harvest festivals were about rejoicing, and after the bountiful harvest of 1621 and amicable relations between the Wampanoag and the Europeans, no one could deny the desire for a plentiful shared feast. (Find more historic details at Plimoth.org. Or, Wikipedia has more.) The “first” Thanksgiving took place over three days, and was attended by approximately 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.

By the 1660s, an annual harvest festival was being held in New England. Often, church leaders proclaimed the Thanksgiving holiday. Later, public officials joined with religious leaders in declaring such holidays. The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, and just over one decade later, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” (Visit History.com for interactive resources.) National Thanksgiving proclamations were made by various presidents through the decades, falling in and out of favor until Sarah Hale convinced President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim Thanksgiving as a federal holiday. Still, it wasn’t until 1941 that Thanksgiving was established permanently as the fourth Thursday of November.


Even families that rarely visit houses of worship muster a prayer over the Thanksgiving table. But how much do you know about Americans’ preferences in prayer? How often do we pray? What do we pray for? Religion news writer David Briggs has assembled a surprising quiz on Americans’ habits of prayer. We challenge you to take this little test! (No question. You will be surprised.)


Plate from above of Thanksgiving sides and turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, roll, etc.

Photo courtesy of Smiley Apple Blog

The National Football League has played games on Thanksgiving Day since its creation. In 1924, Americans enjoyed the inauguration of both the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”—held annually in New York City—and “America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”—held in Detroit. To this day, both parades welcome tourists and locals alike and are widely televised. Several U.S. cities host a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, welcoming runners of all ages to burn off some calories in anticipation of the day’s feast.

Many foods common on the Thanksgiving table are native to North America and to the season, such as corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squashes and cranberries. Mealtime prayers and worship services are still common on this holiday of gratitude.

Recipes, décor and hosting tips: Find recipes, menus and more at Food Network, AllRecipes, Food & Wine and Epicurious. Of course, at ReadTheSpirit, we especially encourage you to explore Bobbie Lewis’s weekly columns at FeedTheSpirit. Scroll through Bobbie’s columns and you’ll find lots of yummy recipes (and inspiring stories).

Vegetarian guests? Please guests sans the turkey with menu suggestions from the New York Times, here and here.

Thanksgiving crafts: Adults can create DIY décor with help from HGTV, and kids can be entertained before the big dinner with craft suggestions from Parents, Parenting and Disney.


Hot off the press this Thanksgiving are headlines that Black Friday may soon be a permanent fixture in our American Season of Gratitude.

Why? Blame it on “the millennials.” They’re demanding more shopping hours on Thanksgiving Day, claim marketing analysts. (Read more in our full story on Black Friday.) Findings reveal that while Baby Boomers are happy to stay seated at the table, millennials are in a rush to wrap up the turkey for leftovers and hit retail stores. What these findings don’t take into consideration, however, is the tendency for millennials to enjoy shopping in general more than the Baby Boomer generation. (TIME has the story.) In addition, most millennials don’t yet own a home and are unlikely to be hosting on the holiday—something that may very well change in time.