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How Different Cultures Celebrate Halloween

Maricruz has associates degrees in English and Spanish, loves to read, drink coffee, and write!

Halloween Across Different Cultures

Ever wonder about the afterlife?

Many do, and many did in the old traditions of the ancient world. In all this wondering, there seems to be an interesting correlation in timing. Many ancient traditions contemplated the land of the dead during a certain time of the year.

Fast forward to the present day, and we have the international holiday “Halloween.” It's not an accident that Halloween lands on October 31st, though. This is a specific time set by ancient minds of many different cultures.

So while we are busy buying spooky costumes, tasty candy, and decorating for tricks, treats, and frights, we are partaking in an ancient celebration of death stretching back centuries and spanning many geographical cultures. Let's look at a few…


Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”)

The most starkly similar to modern-day Halloween, Samhain was an old Celtic harvest holiday dating back to pre-Christian Ireland.

Passed down by oral traditions, the holiday was recorded in Irish sagas written down in the ninth through twelfth centuries. It was a marker of the new year and the beginning of winter, usually falling at the end of October.

Though it functioned as a day of harvest and a day to celebrate the new year, as the nature of winter suggests, it was also a day of the dead. The winter days died earlier, the vegetation withered in the cold, and the harvest, as well as domestic animals, had to be brought in from the fields to a safer, warmer environment.

Samhain itself was a day when the threshold between the living world and the dead one was particularly easy to cross. The souls of the recently deceased were believed to be present, and spooky beings from the land of the dead such as Irish Fomorians, fairies, and demons, were said to be able to cross that threshold to demand food from the living. Interestingly, this belief would later evolve into the celebration of modern-day trick-or-treating.

While dancing around bonfires, dressed as wild animals, the Celts would burn animal sacrifices. It is speculated to appease the spirits, literally, in the air. This was the beginning of costumery in association with the holiday. People also eventually started donning masks and dressing as the spirits themselves because they believed they could trick ill-intentioned ghosts and so could have the protection of camouflage on the way home from the celebrations.

When Christianity arrived in Ireland, Samhain was incorporated into Christian practices by associating it with All Soul’s Day on November 2nd, a day devoted to remembering the beloved deceased with prayer, mass, and visits to graves.


Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Across the pond, there is the famed Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, a holiday taking place during the two-day period encompassing All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which lands on November 1st and 2nd.

It seems clear from the dates and the fact that the holiday is a remembrance of those who have passed that it's a Mexican version of the aforementioned Roman Catholic holidays.

However, the traditional practices of Dia de Los Muertos are so unique to Mexican culture scholars believe it is an ancient Aztec holiday that was incorporated into the Christian calendar by association with similar Christian holidays, as Samhain was.

On Dia de Los Muertos, the dead are believed to be able to visit their living loved ones and watch over them. “Ofrendas,” or offerings, are put up at private residences to honor the family members who have passed on. The ofrendas consist of fresh fruit, squash, staple foods, sweets, and a special bread made for the dead. Usually included are the favorite foods of the deceased in question. From this offered food, the dead are believed to imbibe its essence through the aroma during their visit. The ofrendas are arranged on beautifully decorated altars alongside flowers, photos, and candles.

This custom is similar to ancient Aztec practices of eating special holy bread to honor gods and deceased persons who died in ways that forced their loved ones to bury them instead of cremating them, as was the Aztec mortuary custom. This bread was famously shaped as the gods or persons being honored, much like the sugar skulls commonly eaten on Dia de Los Muertos today.


Mahalaya (The Date of a Particular New Moon)

Traveling outside of the western world, this fall period of deathly interaction can still be observed.

In the state of Bengali, India, a festival occurs every October in honor of the Goddess Devi Durga. Hers is a thrilling tale of the fight between good and evil. She is an embodiment of the combined powers of three very powerful Indian gods, materialized to vanquish the demon Mahisasur. She succeeds, of course, and is considered a nurturing mother goddess.

Accompanying the ten-day festival which celebrates her victory is a noted lunar phase that falls in the first half of the Indian month Ashwin, September 15 to October 15. During this lunar phase, it is said to be the Pitruloka, a time when ancestors are able to visit the living in their invisible forms.

On Mahalaya, the last day of this lunar period, Hindu families celebrate by making offerings of sacrificial animals, incense, and flowers in honor of the last three generations of their ancestors.


Zhongyuan Festival (The Hungry Ghost Festival)

Halfway across the world, in China and in surrounding countries like Taiwan and Singapore, a Buddhist festival known as “the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts” occurs just before autumn every year, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

On the 14th and 15th days of the month, paper money is burnt in offering to condemned spirits. For a few days, it is said that hell opens up and allows its inhabitants to wander the world of the living.

A hierarchy of offerings occurs during the entire month, first to the gods, then to cherished ancestors, and finally to the wandering condemned spirits. Sometimes it's paper money that's offered; in other households or areas, it is incense, food, or paper clothing. These offerings are meant to help these tortured souls on their way through the levels of judgment when they’re called back to hell.

Some believe that it is only with the meditation of Buddhist monks that the souls can utilize the offerings and be saved. In communal offering events, large tables are filled with food and paper offerings. These events are organized by monks and presided over by the imposing statue of the king of hell. These two authority figures, the real and the symbolic are meant to keep order and dole out the offerings fairly between the wayward and rowdy ghosts.

An interesting precaution taken during this time is restricted travel because people worry that they will be subject to illness and bad luck if they make bodily contact with a wandering, condemned spirit.

Final Spooky Thoughts

It's interesting how these four cultures, spanning across the four corners of the world, all have similar festivals expressing people's belief that, if only for a short time, those that have passed into the world of the dead can revisit this one.

The unknown becomes tangible, and there is an element of danger and fascination in it.

What makes these practices and beliefs more compelling is that they all seem to fall during the same season, a season when green turns to brown, and people are generally more willing to be startled by the intangibles of the world.

Superstitions aside, it does make the season more meaningful when so many cultures believe our dearly departed are with us again. So the next time we dress our children up as the latest horror film villain, we can consider that it really to scare away the ghost lurking around the corner, and the next time we get spooked by a shriek on Halloween night, it might not be the phony ghost set up to hand out candy, but a real one.

Happy Halloween, folks, and stay safe during your unrestricted travel… don’t bump into a ghost!


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