Halloween, as it exists today, evolved from Irish and Scottish cultural traditions over the course of the last 200 years. It is most popular as a commercial and cultural holiday in the United States and Canada. Though some North American Halloween customs have taken hold in European and Asian nations throughout the past two decades, most other countries do not celebrate Halloween to the extent that the U.S. and Canada do. Instead, many countries have their own special cultural celebrations of ghosts, skeletons, and the deceased. With Halloween just around the corner, we thought it would be interesting to share a little bit about some of the most famous Halloween-like holidays from around the world!
1. El Dia De Los Muertos
Beginning on October 31 and ending on November 2, this famous holiday is celebrated all throughout Mexico – especially in the Central and South regions – and is also recognized worldwide by different cultures. The celebration is premised upon gatherings of family and friends, who remember and pray for loved ones who have died, in order to support the spiritual journeys of the deceased. Traditional activities connected with El Dia De Los Muertos include the construction of ofrendas (elaborate private altars to the dead), and the sharing of sugar skulls and marigolds with spirits. Visiting the graves of deceased loved ones with food, beverages, and gifts is also traditional. Scholars have traced El Dia De Los Muertos’ origins to indigenous traditions from hundreds of years ago, as well as to an ancient Aztec festival celebrating Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld.
2. Hungry Ghost Festival (盂蘭節)
Held on the 14th or 15th night of the 7th month of the Chinese calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a Buddhist and Taoist celebration in China and a few other Asian countries. The 15th day of the lunar calendar’s 7th month is referred to as Ghost Day, and the 7th month in general is Ghost Month. During this month, ghosts and spirits of ancestors exit the lower realm and come to visit the living. Major Hungry Ghost Festival traditions include the preparation of ritualistic food (for the hungry ghosts, of course!), and the burning of incense and joss paper. Joss paper is used to create papier-mâché symbols of material items (clothing, gold, etc.), which are burned for the visiting ghosts. Elaborate family meals (often vegetarian) are served with empty seats at the table for each deceased family member. Releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on the water is seen as giving directions to lost spirits.
To stay safe from the spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival, there are certain things the living must not do. The list of taboos for the entire 7th month is as follows:
- Do not go walking at night.
- Do not go swimming.
- Do not relocate, start a business, or marry.
- Do not hang clothing outside at night.
- Do not pick up money found on the street.
- Do not step on or kick ghost offerings by the roadside.
- Do not wear red.
- Do not sing or whistle.
- Do not stand near walls.
- Do not celebrate birthdays at night. Celebrate during the day.
Celebrated every year in October, Vijayadashami (or Dussehra) is one of the most important festivals in Hindu tradition. It is a days-long harvest festival that differs more in tone from Halloween than other holidays on this list. Observed throughout India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the holiday marks the victory of Lord Rama in his battle against the ten-headed demon king Ravana — and the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil demon Mahishasu. As recorded in the Hindu scripture Ramayana, King Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu (the central Hindu deity), killed Ravana, who had abducted Rama’s wife Sita and imprisoned her in the kingdom of Lanka. Rama, along with his brother Lakshmana, and their army, fought an epic battle to rescue Sita and destroy Ravana. Elsewhere in Hindu scriptural history, a demon called Mahishasura became extremely powerful and wreaked havoc upon the earth. To combat Mahishasura, Brahma, Vishnua, and Shiva (the three central Hindu deities) created the goddess Durga, a ten-armed virgin warrior who rode upon a lion. Armed with all of the weapons of the gods, Durga fought Mahishasura for nine days and nights, and finally destroyed him on the tenth day. People of Hindu faith observe Vijayadashami through social gatherings, prayers, and food offerings to the gods at home and in temples. Evil figures Ravana and Mahishasura are burned in effigy, and the stories of Vijayadashami are shared through plays, toys, and costumes.
4. Obon Festival (お盆)
Celebrated in Japan on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month for more than 500 years, the Obon (or Bon) Festival is a Japanese Buddhist-Confucian family reunion holiday. During the Obon Festival, families visit ancestral homes to visit and clean ancestor’s graves and be present for the return of their ancestors’ spirits to the household altars. The festival lasts for three days and includes a traditional dance, called Bon Odori. The dance is inspired by the story of Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, who saved his deceased mother from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by making offers to Buddhist monks. He saw the true nature of his mother’s selflessness in life, and began to dance with joy. The Bon Odori dance is performed in remembrance and appreciation of ancestors’ past sacrifices.
By Ephraim Rudolph, Marketing & Communications Intern