Universal Spooky Season
Costumes being frantically purchased, party-sized candy bags clearing off store shelves, and the return of Pumpkin Spice Lattes can only mean one thing: Halloween is upon us.
We all know the drill. On October 31st, we dress up as the scariest vampire or zombie, the grooviest hippie or DJ, the prettiest princess or fairy, and go from door to door requesting candy. It’s tradition. It’s America’s tradition. A tradition with over 159 million participants and worth over two billion dollars annually to the US economy.
But how did Halloween evolve and what festivals from around the world does it share a kinship?
The origins of Halloween trace back all the way to 7th century Ireland. On October 31st at the ancient Celtic Festival of Samhain, people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off spirits. This festival marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time associated with death. On this day, the Celts believed the boundary between life and death thinned, allowing spirits to return. Food offerings were provided to appease them, but demonic faces were carved as a precaution into turnips and pumpkins to scare away the spirits who weren’t so easily satisfied.
Los Días de Los Muertos
Mexico, Latin America, and Spain sanction death through “Los Días de Los Muertos,” which translates to “Day of the Dead.” This three-day holiday is dedicated to honoring the dead who are believed to return on October 31st.
In preparation, families construct altars for deceased loved ones decorated with offerings such as candles, flowers, and personal possessions. These offerings help guide the dead home to be ‘reunited’ with loved ones. It is common for the living to consume el pan de Los Muertos, bread of the dead, to feel closer to loved ones as an ofrenda (offering). Sugar skulls are decorated as well with the name of the deceased emblazoned across the forehead in icing. A variety of sugar skull flavors, such as chocolate and coffee, are sold in markets, shops, and street stands. In rural areas, it is more common however to make homemade sugar skulls.
On November 2nd, the final day of the holiday, families gather around the gravesites of the deceased to reminisce and reunite. Los Dias de Los Muertos allows the living to feel close to ancestors. It keeps the connections within families alive.
The Hungry Ghost Festival
Hong Kong, however, celebrates a more sinister variation, “The Hungry Ghost Festival,” which falls on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, usually around September.
This festival lasts a month. On the first day, the living believe ancestors are “released from hell and roam the Earth.” Throughout the month, sacrifices are made to appease the ghosts. Fake paper money and food are burned to “feed” the spirits’ needs.
On the last day of the month, families construct lanterns out of wood and paper, writing their ancestors names on the sides, and place them on local waterways to lead the ghosts back to hell. It is believed the gates close on this day, causing the spirits to once again leave Earth. The Hungry Ghost Festival is also celebrated in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan with differing traditions, but the same message: the dead don’t want to be forgotten.
In India, a lunar calendar is also followed as Hindus celebrate Pitru Paksha, another ritual where families pay homage to deceased ancestors.
Hindu’s believe after a loved ones die, they are taken to a stage of purgatory and are briefly allowed to return to living family members. To ensure their loved one’s place in the afterlife, families implement Shraddha, a fire ritual that is intended to support and protect the dead on their journey to a higher realm before reincarnation. The eldest son leads Shraddha and takes his place as head of the family.
Food offerings of kheer (sweet rice and milk), lapsi (a sweet porridge), rice, lentils, and pumpkins are provided to the dead to give them energy and strength for their pilgrimage. This establishes camaraderie in both the living and dead within a family.
All Saints Day
All Saints Day, a Catholic Holiday, is widely celebrated across European countries such as Austria, Hungry, and Italy to honor those who have entered heaven. On November 1st, gravesites are decorated with wreaths of chrysanthemums of all colors and candles.
In Italian homes, a place at the table is set for departed loved ones and a red candle is placed on the windowsill at sunset, hoping to attract wandering spirits home. In Austria, children walk through the village singing songs of All Souls and receive small gifts in return; this is called Heischeumzugen which literally translates to “asking for small gifts” much like how Americans walk through neighborhoods asking for candy.
Whether it’s little kids trick-or-treating or lanterns floating down a river, the traditions vary from country to country. Still, the common thread of commemorating the dead remains a universal constant.