The Halloween we know today is very different from the ancient celtic festival it evolved from. The focus now is on trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes, but the Halloween traditions we participate in today have evolved from ancient traditions involving the dead. People believed that the line between the living and the dead was blurred on Halloween, meaning spirits could find their way into our world.
Not every culture celebrates Halloween, but many cultures have their own traditions surrounding the dead which share similarities with Halloween. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of these traditions.
Samhain (pronounced sow-in), is an ancient celtic festival where Halloween is thought to have evolved from. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and the night where spirits could re-enter our world. Bonfires are lit to ward off the spirits, and costumes worn so people could blend in with the spirits they thought to be roaming the streets. Jack-o-lanterns used to be carved from turnips to frighten away evil spirits. Many of our Halloween traditions today have roots in Samhain.
On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month (ghost month) at dusk, incense, food and water are laid in front of photos of lost loved ones. Later a feast is held where an open setting at the table is left for a departed ancestor. The festival is dedicated to appeasing restless spirits, hence the name.
Day of the Dead takes place on the 1st and 2nd of November, and focuses on celebrating life, and honouring deceased loved ones. Parades are held in the streets, with lots of singing and dancing. Temporary altars are built for deceased family members, where sugar skulls, bottles of tequila, marigolds and photos of lost loved ones are laid as offerings. These attract the spirits to the altars so they can reunite with their living family.
Obon is a Buddhist festival held to commemorate ancestors whose spirits are believed to return to the world to visit their relatives during the festival. Lanterns are hung outside homes to guide the spirits home, graves are visited and food offerings made at house altars. Obon dances (bon odori) are performed, and at the end of Obon floating lanterns are placed in rivers, lakes and the sea to guide the spirits back to their world. Like the Hungry Ghost Festival, it typically takes place in August, though different regions have different traditions.
Pchum Ben is a Cambodian Buddhist Festival that takes place over 15 days in September or October. Offerings of food are given to monks and spirits to help ease the suffering of deceased relatives and prevent their spirits from causing harm.
Chuseok is a harvest festival celebrated in September, where families gather to pay respects to their ancestors by visiting their graves, making traditional foods, and holding ancestral rites. Sometimes known as “Korean Thanksgiving”, Chuseok is a thanksgiving holiday that also honours lost loved ones.
Halloween isn’t widely celebrated in France, but La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) is an important holiday of remembrance for French people. It takes place on 1st November, and is a public holiday. Flowers, often chrysanthemums, are placed on the graves of loved ones, and candles are lit in memory of deceased family members. All Saints’ Day is celebrated by many cultures around the world.
From the colourful and festive altars of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico to the ancient Celtic origins of Samhain in Ireland, from the solemn reverence of All Saints’ Day to the lively processions of the Hungry Ghost Festival in China, our world is a tapestry of traditions that celebrate the spectral and the spiritual.
Thank you for reading.
For more information on the history of Halloween as we know it, take a look at this previous article:
The History of Halloween