Halloween is a much anticipated holiday for most children. What started in Ireland as a day to keep evil spirits from making mischief has become a day of self-indulgence for children. Dressing up and going from house to house demanding “trick or treat” is essentially a Western custom, primarily practiced in the United States and Canada, but remembering and revering the dead is a common custom around the world. Many cultures have designated days and unique ways of honoring the souls of those who have passed and to keep evil spirits at bay - read on for our roundup of some of the most fascinating.
It all began in Ireland, where farmers wanted to cast out evil spirits to keep them from ruining crops or bringing other bad fortune. Today, the Irish celebrate Halloween in a similar fashion as the United States. Yet, some traditions have never caught on worldwide, such as playing games such as “snap-apple,” in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree and players attempt to bite the hanging apple. Children also used to play tricks on their neighbors, such as “knock-a-dolly,” a prank in which children knock on the doors of their neighbors but run away before the door is opened. The Irish also have a special fruitcake called a barnbrack, which is only eaten on Halloween. A treat is baked into the cake, which is believed to foretell the eater’s future. If a ring is found it means romance is in the cards, a coin indicates wealth is on its way and a piece of straw means that a fruitful crop is in store.
During the Halloween season, China celebrates a festival called The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts. It is an ancient traditional holy day dedicated to the restless spirits who roam the earth in the seventh month of the lunar calendar. The ghosts are called “hungry” because it is believed that souls from people who have passed away due to unnatural causes of death and those those that were not given a proper burial feel they have been abandoned and look to take it out on the living. Many Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts by making roadside fires, burning money and leaving out food to sate the appetite of the hungry ghosts, while also ‘feeding’ their own ancestors.
In Mexico, Halloween is a three-day celebration that begins on the evening of October 31. The celebration is known as El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and is designed to honor the dead, who are believed to return to their earthly homes on Halloween. Villages will hold parades during this time that feature dancers dressed as skeletons and a living person inside a coffin that is carried by ushers. Many families build an altar to the dead in their homes, which they decorate with candy, flowers, photographs and the deceased favorite foods and drinks. Candles are burnt to help the dead find their way home. It is also an occasion to tidy and decorate the graves of the departed loved ones and to commemorate them with gatherings and picnics by the gravesite.
Japan celebrates the Obon Festival in July or August to honor the spirits of ancestors. Similar to the Mexican tradition, candles or fires are lit to show ancestors where their relatives may be found. Special meals are prepared and bright red lanterns are hung everywhere and float the rivers and seas of Japan. Obon is one of the main occasions during the Japanese year when the dead are believed to return to their birthplaces. Memorial stones are cleaned and community dances performed.
India celebrates a 16-day lunar period, which usually coincides with September, during which the Hindu pray and offer food to the ancestors. During Pitru Paksha, it is said that the souls of the three preceding generations of one’s ancestors reside in their descendants’ home. Hindus believe that if they fail to offer water and food to the ancestors in the pitru paksha then in their afterlife they will also remain without food and water. In this period, a ritual called Shraddha, which pays homage to one’s ancestors by treating other important community members to a meal, must be performed by a son to ensure that the soul of the ancestor goes to heaven.
In Madagascar, honouring the dead is a very special occasion, as Famadihana is only celebrated every seven years. During the turning of the bones, the Malagasy people take the bodies of their ancestors out of the tombs, wrap them in fresh, expensive cloth and dance them around their graves. The festivity is a joyous occasion that brings together extended family and is accompanied by live music, food and stories about the deceased family members.
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