JC Scull has lived in different countries and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at a Chinese University.
The Day of the Dead, the Hungry Ghost Festival, and Halloween
This article takes a look at el Dia de los Muertos, (Day of the Dead) in Latin America, the Hungry Ghost Celebration in Asia, and Halloween in the United States, Canada, and some other Western countries. All three celebrations are representative of how humans deal with the subjects of death, spirits, deceased ancestors, and the unknown. More importantly, these festivities open a brief window into the cultural diversity present in our world today. Amazingly, these celebrations exhibit many similarities despite the geographical distance between the cultures that practice them. This shows that we are not all that different after all.
Dia de los Muertos in Latin America
El Dia de los Muertos goes back at least 3,000 years to the days of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations when the celebration took place in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (the beginning of August) and continued for an entire month. The Spanish conquistadors moved the celebration to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day as a way of converting the indigenous population to Christianity.
While it is a holiday celebrated all throughout Mexico, there are a handful of other Latin American countries that also celebrate the Day of the Dead. Celebrations in each country vary, but the overall motive stays the same; it is a day to celebrate the lives of those ancestors who are no longer alive. It is also a day that combines traditions, history, and contemporary culture in a rich and colorful tapestry that ultimately helps people embrace death as part of life.
It is a big day in Mexico—a day to remember and connect with those ancestors now departed and in the process celebrate life. It is a period full of color, cheerfulness, and remembrance. It is also a day of masks, costumes, and sometimes parades. At times it is solemn but mostly it is festive. It is also a day when altars called “ofrendas” or offerings are erected in revelers' homes to commemorate those family members that are no longer living.
The altars are intricately decorated with pictures of the deceased along with flowers, candles, and even food offerings. Sometimes, family members also visit grave sites and pay homage to their departed loved ones. Oftentimes, family members will gather around a table to celebrate with food and drink while commemorating the life of their loved ones.
In Mexican culture, el Dia de los Muertos is a day of celebration, as it is believed the dead are insulted by mourning and sadness. Instead, the living enjoy the activities the dead enjoyed in life. It is a day to recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life: birth, childhood, adulthood, procreation, and finally, the eternal journey. On this day, the dead are awakened from their eternal sleep in order to share in the celebration of their lives alongside their loved ones.
Altars and Offerings
Altars are an artistic and symbolic expression of the reverence and memorialization of the loved ones who have passed. In accordance with Mexican tradition, altars are built in seven stages for souls to pass through in order to reach eternal peace. These stages are:
- Depiction of a religious figure in the form of an effigy, photo, or small statue.
- A depiction or picture of souls in purgatory.
- Salt for the children in purgatory.
- Pan de Muerto or Bread for the Dead. A special bread decorated with red sugar symbolizing blood.
- The favorite food of the deceased.
- Photographs of the deceased.
- A cross, rosary or both.
Additionally, altars should include items corresponding to the four elements which represent the essentials of life. These are:
- Candles - Fire
- Tissue paper - Wind
- Glass of water - Water
- Fruits or flowers - Earth
In this Central American country, el Dia de los Muertos is mostly celebrated on November 1st. Kites are constructed and flown as a way to help the spirits of friends and relatives find their way back to Earth. The tails of the kites will contain strings tied to notes directed to the dear departed. Perhaps, as sort of “heavenly emails or text messages.”
A kitchen-sink style salad called fiambre, made of sausages, cold cuts, onion, cheeses, chicken, beets and many other foods, is exclusively made once a year for the Day of the Dead. Families will visit grave sites and decorate them with flowers, candles and food. In some cases, visitors going to the cemeteries that are in disrepair, will pitch in to fix what has been broken or faded with time.
Practiced by descendants of the Mayas only, during which altars are erected and decorated with food, drink and candles as a way to feed the souls of the departed.
On November 8th, Bolivia observes a uniquely different Dia de los Muertos. Called Día de las Ñatitas or Day of the Skulls, it’s a celebration dating back to pre-Columbian time in the Andes, in which families spend an entire day with the skeletal remains of relatives brought back from the grave on the third year after burial.
Today, only the skulls of relatives are kept at home, as a way to protect the family during the year. On this day large crowds of devotees visit La Paz’s cemetery carrying the skulls of their relatives where they crown them with flowers and dress them in various garments.
This ghastly practice also includes making offering of cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves and Mass blessings.
Dia dos Finados, Brazil’s Day of the Dead is a day of contemplation and introspection, celebrated on November 2nd. Unlike Mexico and some of the other Hispanic countries in which the Day of the Dead is celebratory, in Brazil it is a day to visit the cemetary and think about life and death.
For those of indigenous heritage - which represent 25% of the population – El Dia de los Muertos is a very important celebration. These families meet at the cemetery for an entire day of celebration and remembrance with offerings of food and drink.
Typical foods are colada morada, a spiced purple porridge and purple maize. Both of these foods represent luto or mourning. They also bring guagua de pan, a baby shaped bread. Sometimes the bread will contain cheese and guava paste inside.
Non-indigenous families visit the graves of their loved ones in order to clean them and bring flowers, sometimes preparing traditional foods.
The Rest of Latin American
Countries like Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Honduras and El Salvador, celebrate this day by remembering deceased relatives and in some cases visiting local cemeteries.
The Hungry Ghost Festival in Asia
The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival is a Buddhist and Taoist celebration held during the 15th night of the seventh month of the year in the Chinese calendar. While this day is called Ghost Day, the entire seventh month is called Ghost Month.
This is the time when the gates of Heaven and Hell are swung wide open and all ghosts and spirits come out from the underworld or lower realm and visit the living. The ghosts then become free to roam the earth and seek food and entertainment; perhaps even a little mischief, if ignored.
Lest the living neglect the dead, from the depth of hell will come ghosts believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they passed. They could also be those who did not get a proper send-off by their relatives.
As Chinese lore goes, these spirits have long thin necks and are unable to swallow, since they have not been properly fed by their family. And let’s face it; nobody wants granddad’s ghost complaining about a grumbling stomach and exhibiting a gaunt look.
Both Taoist and Buddhist perform rituals to transmute and absolve the suffering of the departed, but more importantly when the dead are venerated, filial piety is reestablished going back through all generations of ancestors. During this month's offerings of ritualistic foods are made; incense is burned; old clothes are burned; fake money is also burned; the richer among the living may burn gold or other fine goods.
People also burn paper houses, cars, television sets and even effigies of the servants. All of this for the visiting spirits.
With 76% of its population being of Chinese heritage, it is no wonder Singapore too celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festivities, albeit a little differently from China. While the basic belief that the spirits of the dearly departed will come back to earth to roam around the neighborhood, sometimes benignly; sometimes mischievously, the celebration itself is somewhat different.
In this small city-state of 5.6 million inhabitants, just like in China, you will see plenty of food left out in the open, burning joss sticks and money as well as altars. However, unlike China, Singaporeans enjoy public concerts and performances by dancers, singers, opera troops and puppet shows.
After all, while ghosts need food, drink, maybe even companionship, they also need entertainment. Hense, the 'getai' performances thrown as a way to keep those wandering spirits amused.
Although Chinese Indonesians only account for 3% of a population totalling 272 million, the Ghost Month tradition has taken hold. This could be possibly related to the similarity with Hari Raya Galungan celebration in which ancestral spirits visit the earth and the indigenous Hindu population of Indonesia practice. Also, China’s vicinity and its strong influence throughout Asia which brought Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism could be another reason.
Besides all the typical ways hungry ghosts are fed and entertained in China and elsewhere, Indonesian observe one festivity known as Cioko, or Sembahyang Rebutan (scrambling prayer), in which celebrants gather around temples bringing their offerings to the spirits of those who died in an unlucky way, after which they distribute the food to the poor.
As in Singapore, Malaysians attend concert-like performances, known as Getai in Manderin in which groups of singers, dancers, entertainers, opera groups and puppet shows are carried out. Typically, the festivals are funded by the residents of each district.
During the Getai, the front rows of the theaters are left empty for those celestial guests who might decide to drop by and be entertained. And beware; any mere mortal who sits on these empty seats especially reserved for those visitors from the underworld, will be struck with an unforeseen illness for their insolence.
Similarly to China, during this time of the year, lanterns are released; incense and spirit paper money is burned; food is offered to the wondering souls, all of this in order that they do not visit unsuspecting homes. During this month, the living should avoid surgery, buying cars, swimming, moving from one residence to another, marrying, whistling and taking pictures after dark; as you never know what type of misdeed, the ghosts could do to derail your efforts.
But most importantly – do not reveal your address to those naughty spirits. They might come looking for you.
The Japanese version of the Ghost Festival is known as Obon or plainly Bon. It is a time to celebrate life and many people join in a traditional dance called the Odori or Bon-Odori. It is a dance that welcomes the spirits of the dead by creating a circle of singers and musician atop a high platform called a yagura. Dancers, sometimes holding on to paper fans, ranging in age and gender surround the yagura, dancing around it.
Families will hang paper lanterns outside their homes as a way to guide their lost ancestors back home. At the end of the festival all lanterns are released on any body of water nearby so that they can drift away. Fireworks are employed to scare away lingering spirits, while encouraging them to return to the afterlife.
The Ghost Festival in Vietnam, called Tết Trung Nguyên is as colorful and interesting as all the other Asian countries that celebrate and venerate their dear departed. Viewed as a time to pardon the condemned souls released from hell, it is also aimed at feeding and appeasing them.
However, interestingly, the festival also doubles as Mother’s Day during which those with living mothers are urged to wear a red rose on their lapels, while those whose mothers have passed, wear a white rose.
Making Ghost Festival in Vietnam an interesting occurrence are the many superstitions regarding how people must behave during this time of the year, in which millions of wondering souls come to visit their living relatives. Some of these are:
- Don’t hang your wash out to dry at night, as a mischievous spirit might wear your clothing and when the garment is returned, you will catch a cold.
- Never shout a person’s name at midnight lest a spirit decides to beguile the unsuspecting victim into the underworld.
- Don’t steal food from the offerings tray before it is presented to the spectral visitors.
- Do not get married during this month, as the marriage will be doomed to fail.
- Ghost love to appear in pictures when taken in the dark, so avoid doing this as your subject might end up with an unwanted visitor in the photo.
- Do not buy white suits or dresses during this month, since white is for funerals.
- Wearing cloths with painted skulls invites ghosts to confuse you for one of their own and take you with them to the other side.
- And of course, keep your bedroom light on at night. This will definitely ward off any of those pesky ghosts that could come for you.
In Cambodia, as in most of Asia, Hungry Ghost are released from hell sometime in September or October. The only difference being the celebrations last a mere 15 days, rather than a full month. Called Pchum Ben, Cambodians pay their respects to relatives going back seven generations.
One interesting tradition is the offering of phallic-shaped rice cakes that experts believe originate from earlier fertility rights. Of course, Ghosts have their needs too.
The Laos Hungry Ghost Festival, known as Boun khao padap din usually occurs in September of each year and goes on for two weeks. As in the rest of Asia, it is believed that hungry ghosts are freed from hell and enter the world of the living. This celebration is followed by oun khao salak in which food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts.
Halloween in the USA, Canada, and Other Western Countries
Halloween has its origin from the Celtic festival of Samhain, going back more than 2000 years. The Celts who lived in what is now Ireland would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.
October 31st, when Halloween is celebrated, marks the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the darkness associated with winter, and for the Celts, a time of human deaths. They believed that on this night, the division between the worlds of the living and the dead became somewhat indistinguishable, allowing the ghosts of the dead to return to earth.
However, these ghosts could cause trouble by damaging crops, but on a positive note, would also allow the Druids - the Celtic priests - to make predictions about the future. These predictions or prophecies were an important source of solace to people like the Celts who greatly depended on nature.
History of Trick-or-Treating
Poor children in medieval Europe were the first trick-or-treaters in recorded history. They would go door-to-door begging for food and money during the Celtic Samhain holiday. In exchange for alms they would offer to pray for the souls of the givers' loved ones. This practice of community prayer, known as "souling" was believed to be the only method that could save the souls of their dead relatives.
Eventually, these trick-or-treaters became a little more adventurous and began singing, joke telling and staging doorstep performances for their "treats", which became known as mumming.
Candy was not a part of the trick-or-treat experience until sometime around the 1920s, when neighbors also handed out different types of sweets.
The origin of Halloween costumes goes back to the medieval tradition of "guising," or disguising oneself as a ghost in order to blend in with all the ghoulish spirits that emerge during Samhain.
Later, the Catholic church merged the Samhain celebration with All Hallow's Eve or All Saints Eve, and people began to dress up as angels, saints, and devils as they roamed the streets in search of treats.
By the 19th century European immigrants coming to the Americas brought their All Hallows Eve traditions, and modern-day Halloween was born.
References and Further Reading
- The Day of the Dead
- Top 10 Things to Know About the Day of the Dead
- Mexican Culture
- Folk Art Guide - Mexico
- Five Facts About el Dia de los Muertos
- Bolivia's Day of the Skulls
- Dia de los Muertos in Guatemala
- Hungry Ghost Festival
- Hungry Ghost Festival Indonesia
- Hungry Ghost Festival Vietnam
- History of Trick-or-Treat
- History of Halloween
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on January 09, 2020:
Thank you for your comment Louise.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 09, 2020:
I found this article very interesting and informative to read. I learned something new today from reading this.
Jason Nicolosi from AZ on November 08, 2019:
Interesting and informative. Great article. There was a game made by Lucus Arts called Grim Fandango. It was one of my favorite games at the time. It was all about the day of the dead. Ever since that game I've been fascinated with it. Great read.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on November 08, 2019:
Thank you Iqra. I am glad you enjoyed the article.
Iqra from Pakistan on November 08, 2019:
wow what an amazing information you have shared , so well researched and well written .....
thanks for sharing ...