Nov. 1 might as well be called New Year's Day for the world's dead, the day that many people believed their spirits paid a visit to their loved ones. And American Halloween (celebrated on Oct. 31), is just one derivative of this all-important day.
Halloween's beginnings stretch back to the Celts, who lived about 2,000 years ago in the area that today makes up Ireland, the U.K. and northern France. The Celts celebrated Nov. 1, as the end of summer and the beginning of winter, the end of the light and the start of the dark. The one time each year that the world of the living and the world of the dead were separated by the thinnest of veils. To celebrate this special time, the Celts created massive bonfires, donned costumes and practiced fortune-telling, sowing seeds for future Halloween celebrations in Europe and beyond [source: History].
While non-European peoples and traditions weren't necessarily influenced by the Celts, they hold similar beliefs about the sacredness and mystery of the changing seasons, especially summer to winter, and about their ancestors coming back to Earth each year at a certain time. Here are eight spirit-filled celebrations that honor the dead all over the world.
The Hungry Ghosts Festival
You didn't know ghosts got hungry did you? Roaming around the world can do that. Many Chinese people have a strong proclivity for ancestor worship, and they believe in spirits. These two traditions come together during the lunar calendar's seventh month (around August). That's when, the Chinese say, restless spirits descend upon the earth, wandering to and fro. Who knows what mischief, or worse, a restless spirit can do? To make sure they never find out, the Chinese try to appease these ghosts by burning incense, joss paper and fake money in roadside fires.
In case the spirits are a bit morose, they can enjoy the operas and dramas staged for their entertainment. The Chinese also place food outside in case the ghosts have built up an appetite from all of their restless wandering. All these activities serve a dual purpose, as they're also considered a way to worship one's ancestors.
While these activities take place throughout the seventh lunar month, they're most likely to be observed on the 15th day, which is designated as Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. Chinese operas performed on this day praise the gods' many charitable and pious activities. Yu Lan has been practiced for more than a century, and is officially considered part of the country's cultural heritage [source: Discover Hong Kong].
El Día de los Muertos
El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is sort of a merger between an ancient Aztec festival held for the goddess of the underworld, and the Catholic practice of honoring saints without their own feast days on Nov. 1 (All Saints' Day) and all of the faithful departed on Nov. 2 (All Souls' Day). The latter custom was brought to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors [source: DeNinno].
During the two-day Day of the Dead party, which is Mexico's largest annual celebration and a national holiday to boot, the focus is all about remembering loved ones who have passed on. On Nov. 1, deceased children are remembered, while on Nov. 2 it is the adults' turn. In some places, the festival begins on Oct. 31, because the belief is that young children's souls arise at midnight.
During these days, people will build altars in their homes (or at a public site) dedicated to the departed, as well as clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. They'll also place gifts at gravesites and family altars, like candy skulls or chocolates, small trinkets, food, drink and marigolds, the flower Mexicans associate with death [source: DeNinno]. Parties and parades, where people dress up as skeletons, are also part of the commemorations. The dead, Mexicans believe, would want to enjoy the same kinds of activities they did in life. The holiday is not only celebrated in Mexico, but also throughout Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S.A. [source: National Geographic].
Before Christianity hit the Emerald Isle, the Druids celebrated Samhain (pronounced SOW-wen), or the festival of the dead. Samhain was held at summer's end when, the Druids believed, there was but a mere veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead.
Samhain involved a communal feast, setting out food for the dead and leaving doors and windows unlocked so the spirits could travel freely. The Druids also believed evil spirits would try to cart off unsuspecting souls at this time of year, so they would don costumes mimicking those of the spirit world in order to protect themselves from being taken — the predecessor to today's Halloween costumes.
When Christianity came to Ireland, the Catholic Church replaced Samhain with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day to provide a "better" celebration than the Druids' pagan ritual. Even so, many of the old customs remained. People enjoyed parties, apple-bobbing and various divination games. One example of the latter: peeling an apple into one long strip, then tossing the strip of apple peel over your left shoulder. The strip will supposedly fall into the shape of the initial of your future spouse. Partygoers ate special foods, like barmbrack, a type of fruitcake into which various small items were baked. The item in your slice of cake denoted a future occurrence. For example, getting a coin equaled prosperity, while a ring meant romance and/or happiness. Ancient Celts also carved turnips, a precursor to the American jack-o'-lantern [sources: Haggerty, Ireland-Information].
Today Irish kids still dress up for Halloween, go trick-or-treating (now for candy instead of the traditional apples and nuts) and eat barmbrack, among other customs linked to the Druids. Some modern-day Druids have revived the ancient Samhain celebration as well.
Guy Fawkes Day is another one of those mergers between an old existing holiday and a newer one. In this case, the Catholic holidays of Nov. 1 and 2 were displaced for the Protestant celebration on Nov. 5. The latter commemorates the day in 1605 that Guy Fawkes, a Catholic dissident, and his co-conspirators had planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing government members and King James I in order to re-establish Catholic rule in England. He didn't succeed, as his plot was discovered. The next year, British Parliament declared Nov. 5 a day of thanksgiving and celebration [source: Brittanica].
The English began celebrating it in the same fashion as they had celebrated the previous holidays, mainly by lighting massive bonfires. Sometimes they would toss items such as stones, veggies and nuts into the bonfire to scare away evil spirits. And similarly to the Irish Samhain, they used the bonfire for divination. For example, if a couple tossed nuts into the bonfire and they exploded, that meant the duo would not have a happy marriage.
Over time, Guy Fawkes festivities included fireworks, parades, family celebrations and burning effigies of Fawkes, known as "Guys." In a nod to the practice of trick-or-treating, kids showed off their effigies to neighbors, asking for "a penny for the Guy." But the bonfire is the staple activity, and Guy Fawkes Day became also known as Bonfire Night [source: Altman]. Today, some in the U.K. fear it's being overshadowed by the American import, Halloween.
In Japan, their Day of the Dead-type celebration — Obon — isn't held in October nor November. It occurs on either July 13-15 or Aug. 13-15, depending on the locale (some regions follow the solar calendar, others the lunar, which explains the discrepancy). Obon (pronounced OH-bon) is also known as the Festival of the Lanterns or the Festival of the Dead. It is a Buddhist celebration of the one time each year when the spirits of deceased ancestors pay their loved-ones a visit. This isn't a dreaded, creepy time, or something people fear. It's a happy, celebratory time.
The Japanese hang festive lanterns at their front doors during Obon to guide their dearly departed back home. They also carefully prepare special meals for these family members, which they set out on home altars and at temples. In addition, the Japanese perform special Obon dances and visit the gravesites of their deceased family members. When the three days are over, the people set floating lanterns into nearby lakes, rivers and seas to guide the spirits back to their real homes. Obon is one of Japan's three major holidays; exact customs and practices vary by region [source: Japan Guide].
Haiti's Day of the Dead celebration, called Ghede (pronounced GEH-day), is a mix of Catholic and Voodoo (or Vodou) traditions. Held on All Souls' Day (Nov. 2), it's common to see people leave a church service and, after a quick change of clothes, head straight for a cemetery, where a large black cross has been erected to Baron Samedi, the spirit of death. Then the partying begins.
People bring plates of food to place before the cross for the dead to eat, while chanting incantations, asking the dead for better lives. They'll also serve food among themselves and to the needy. Graves of loved ones will be cleaned and decorated. And revelers, some with white paint on their faces, may dance suggestively or fall into trance-like states. Baron Samedi, you see, likes to have a good time.
This is borne out by the items displayed on a typical Ghede altar: cigarettes; clarin, a Haitian white rum spiced with habanero peppers; a replica of a skull; candles and satin fabric in white, purple and black; crosses and a miniature coffin [source: RavernellCaribbean360].
All Souls' Week
As in other countries, Germans don't celebrate Halloween per se. On Nov. 1, Germans who are Catholic celebrate All Saints' Day. Taking it a step further, in southern Germany, residents celebrate Oct. 30 to Nov. 8 as All Souls' Week, and remember their beloved dead by visiting gravesites and perhaps attending Mass in their honor.
But the more unusual custom is the knife-hiding. On either Oct. 31, Nov. 1 or throughout the entire All Souls' Week (Oct. 30 to Nov. 8) — depending on the German region — people also stash away their knives in safe places. This tradition stems from an old belief that spirits come home to visit at this time. And no one wants to inadvertently slice or dice a ghost while chopping veggies or slicing bread. So Germans felt it was best to hide all of the household knives [source: Sawyer]. Now the practice is merely a fun tradition.
All Saints' Day
Germany and Austria are next-door neighbors. So it is not surprising that their customs are a bit similar. Like the Germans, many Austrians are Catholic, so they also celebrate All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day and All Souls' Week. All Saints' Day is the day dedicated to remembering the saints who have been canonized by the Catholic Church and is celebrated in many countries. Nov. 1 was chosen as the date by Pope Boniface in 609 probably to co-opt a pagan holiday called the Feast of the Lamures, which was when pagans tried to appease restless spirits [source: Catholic Online]. All Souls' Day is held on Nov. 2 and honors all those who have departed this earth. Many people blur the distinction between the two holidays, and may for instance, visit a family gravesite on Nov. 1.
Austrians believe, as do their German neighbors, that this is the sole time of year that dead souls can return to Earth and visit their old stomping grounds. But rather than worrying that they'll accidentally stab or slit these spirits, Austrians are concerned with making them feel welcome. So they keep their lights on at night, even after they have retired for the evening, so the souls don't have to fumble about in the dark. And since the journey from the netherworld to Earth is likely a tiring one, they also set out some bread and water for these famished and thirsty beings.
HowStuffWorks investigates tough-to-kill Halloween myths like razor blades in apples, drugs in candy and black cat abuse.
Author's Note: Beyond Halloween: 8 Holidays Spirits Love
I remember trick-or-treating for UNICEF as a child in the 1960s, and I was recently lamenting to my husband that this tradition had apparently died. None of our kids did it when they were little, nor do any children in our neighborhood currently show up on Halloween toting UNICEF boxes. But apparently it's still being done in certain areas of the country. Hopefully the movement will spread once again to my locale in America's heartland.
More Great Links
- Altman, Alex. "Guy Fawkes Day." Time. Nov. 5, 2008. (Oct. 3, 2015) http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1856603,00.html
- Cambridge, James. "10 Unusual Halloween Traditions From Around The World." BuzzFeed. Oct. 29, 2013. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.buzzfeed.com/jamescambridge/10-unusual-halloween-traditions-from-around-the-wo-arau#.nb4pxAn4d
- Caribbean360. "Haiti's Day of the Dead blends voodoo with Christianity." Nov. 6, 2013 (Oct. 12, 2015).http://www.caribbean360.com/news/haiti_news/haitis-day-of-the-dead-blends-voodoo-with-christianity#ixzz3o6ilMhna
- DeNinno, Nadine. "What Is 'Dia De Los Muertos'? Date, History And Everything To Know About 'Day Of The Dead' 2013." International Business Times. Oct. 30, 2013. (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.ibtimes.com/what-dia-de-los-muertos-date-history-everything-know-about-day-dead-2013-photos-1448084
- Discover Hong Kong. "The Hungry Ghost Festival." (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/see-do/events-festivals/chinese-festivals/the-hungry-ghost-festival.jsp
- Greenblatt, Alan. "Halloween Is More Funny Than Scary In St. Louis." NPR. Oct. 31, 2011. (Sept. 30, 2015) http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2011/10/31/141861829/halloween-is-more-funny-than-scary-in-st-louis
- Haggerty, Bridget. "An Irish Hallowe'en - Part 2." Irish Culture and Customs. (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ACalend/Halloween2.html
- Harness, Jill. "12 Weird Halloween Traditions From Around The World." Oddee. Oct. 30, 2014. (Sept. 30, 2015) http://www.oddee.com/item_99127.aspx
- History. "History of Halloween." (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween
- Ireland-Information. "Irish Halloween Traditions." (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.ireland-information.com/articles/irishhalloweentraditions.htm
- Japan Guide. "Obon." Aug. 25, 2015. (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2286.html
- Laks, Zachary. "10 Best Halloween Celebrations in the U.S." Fodor's. Oct. 15, 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.fodors.com/news/photos/10-best-halloween-celebrations-in-the-us#!1-intro
- Pumpkin Patches and More. "Halloween Traditions and Celebrations Around the World." http://www.pumpkinpatchesandmore.org/halloweenglobal.php
- Reader's Digest. "Halloween Around the World: Customs and Traditions." (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.rd.com/culture/halloween-around-the-world/
- Sawyer, Ty. "Halloween Around the World." Travel Channel. (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/haunted/articles/halloween-around-the-world
- The Week. "Halloween: how strange tales led to spooky traditions." (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/55594/halloween-how-strange-tales-led-to-spooky-traditions
- UNICEF. "History of the Campaign." (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.unicefusa.org/trick-or-treat/about/history
- Whipps, Heather. "Devil's Night: The History of Pre-Halloween Pranks." Live Science. Oct. 29, 2008. (Oct. 3, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/5149-devil-night-history-pre-halloween-pranks.html