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Halloween | Feature

Five festivals where people around the world honour the dead


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Friday, October 27, 2017, 16:17 - As Halloween looms, and the days keep getting shorter, it's easy to feel like things are taking on a spookier air.

Though Halloween is a fun time for kids, it's based on much older traditions of honouring and remembering those who have passed on, and most cultures around the world set aside some part of the year for that purpose. Here's a look at five such.

Dia de los Muertos

The tone of modern Halloween is supposed to be scary, or at least spooky. To people in Mexico and other countries in Latin America, their own festival of the dead, Dia del los Muertos is more like a party.

Specifically, a party to which your deceased loved ones are invited, with death celebrated as a natural part of life. That’s why, far from macabre, the holiday, which grew out of an ancient Aztec festival combined with elements of Catholicism, has a carnavelesque atmosphere, with costumes, music, dancing, and good food, along with altar offerings of flowers and other gifts to the dead.


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The holiday is actually a two-day affair, with November 1 commemorating the souls of children who have died, with November 2 reserved for those of the adults.

Its origins in the traditions of the Aztecs, famous for their pyramids and human sacrifices, may explain why stylized skull motifs are a popular aesthetic for revellers.


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It’s not completely immune from political statements. One of the most widespread and popular designs, La Calavera Catrina, was actually the work of a 19th Century artist making a statement about a particular regime, and eventually became a symbol of the Mexican Revolution.

Hungry Ghost Festival

Dia de los Meurtos is just a couple of days. For people in China and nearby countries, the reunion with their passed loved ones can last an entire calendar month.

The seventh month is considered Ghost Month, when the spirits of lost loved ones once again roam the Earth, peaking on the 15th day of the month, the Hungry Ghost Festival itself.


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According to the South China Morning Post, it's not just the benign spirits that wander about. during that month, the gates of hell open up, and spirits who didn't receive a proper burial or otherwise felt disrespected are said to wander around and bother the living.

To appease them, and also to do right by deceased relatives who simply have returned to visit their families, there are a large number of rituals followed by people throughout the month.


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Incense, paper, candles and small paper effigies of goods like cars or cell phones will be burned as offerings beside homes, while within, choice selections of food will be laid out for the hungry ghosts for which the festival is named.

There's also several "don'ts" to observe: People can't disturb offerings left for ghosts, don't leave clothes out to dry (ghosts might try them on), don't go swimming (ghosts might pull you under), don't get married (the Post only says, ominously, that it won't end well), and whatever you do, don't talk about the ghosts for fear of offending them.

Obon Festival

Growing from ancient Buddhist traditions of ancestor worship, Japan's Obon festival, like most of its counterparts worldwide, is a chance for passed-on relatives to temporarily return.

Like China's Hungry Ghost Festival, it's celebrated during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, though limited to the 13th, 14th and 15th days, and it is sometimes celebrated according to the solar calendar in some parts of Japan.


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Though local practices vary, the defining feature of the festival is the hanging of lanterns outside of houses, and visiting of graves and shrines. It is marked in some areas by traditional dances as well.

At the end of the festival, revellers set up floating lanterns and set them adrift on rivers and lakes, to guide the returned dead back to the afterlife.

Pitru Paksha

This Hindu festival lasts 15 days and is meant to not only honour deceased ancestors, but also to feed the poor.


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According to myth, the tradition started with a man called Karna. A deeply charitable man, he gave gold to worthy causes and to help others throughout his life, and when he died, he went to heaven. However, when he got there, he was only given gold and precious stones to eat.

Perplexed, he went to the god Indra to ask for an explanation, and was told he could have no food because he had never given any to his ancestors. Karna argued that he had never known his ancestors, and the god allowed him to return to Earth for fifteen days out of the year to make amends by donating food to his ancestors' memory.

To this day, practitioners offer prayer and food to their ancestors, but with the stipulation that those who do so must clear their minds of any malice or ill feeling first.

Samhain

Halloween, widely popular in North America, has its roots in a much older tradition.

Samhain (pronounced something like Sa-win) comes to us from the Celtic peoples, and like the other festivals on this list, it's very rooted in the relationship between the living and the dead. It's actually one of four seasonal pagan festivals, taking place from sunset on October 31 to sunrise on November 1.


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By then, the days are getting shorter more quickly, and the cold is setting in, so partially for that reason, it's the most associated with the coming of death (as well as the harvest), and the dead are believed to be more present at that time than any other during the year.

Like other cultures, rituals include setting out food and other gestures of respect for the dead, along with bonfires and dancing. Halloween's tradition of handing out candy and dressing up as scary creatures stems in part from the leaving out of food to placate supernatural creatures such as witches.

SOURCES: Thumbnail image license | National Geographic | Huffington Post | South China Morning Post | Japan Guide | Huffington Post

 

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