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Ghoulish Ghosts’ Global Guises: Festivals of the Dead around the World

Posted on October 26, 2017 by

Megan joined the Public Relations team this summer. Here, she looks back at some Halloween traditions from her childhood in rural Somerset, England, and some she has gathered from her international colleagues at Babbel.

‘‘Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen. Voices and whispers in the trees, Tonight tis’ Halloween’’.

Dexter Kozen


Ghouls and witches, bats and black cats, tricks, treats and pumpkins, it’s the season of Halloween. Originating from the ancient Celtic Festival, Samhain – SOW-i, (possibly as far back as  3350 – 2800 BCE), ‘Hallow’s Eve’ is inherently a Festival of the Dead. On the night of October 31, the Celts believed that the dead would return to Earth. For thousands of years since, townspeople have gathered to light bonfires, perform rituals, and feast, in hope of appeasing evil spirits and protecting their families through the winter.

UK, Halloween, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall, Calan Gaeaf in Wales, and Old Sauin or Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man
In the ninth century AD, Christianity modified the Pagan festival of Samhain. Merging with All Saint’s Day, Samhain became Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, Feast of all Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints. The evening prior became All Hallows’ Eve… Halloween... the Catholic day to reflect on the realities of hell and mourn souls lost to evil.
Every year, little ghosts and witches come knocking at the door asking for candy. Did you know, however, that ghoulish costumes started as ghostly disguises worn by the Celts to trick roaming malevolent spirits? What we know today as trick-or-treating, or guising in Scotland and Northern Ireland, used to be called souling or mumming. On All Souls’ Eve, the poor would beg the rich for a pastry known as Soul Cake. Families would later share the cake and pray that burning candles would appease the returning dead.
As late as the 1950s, children carved ‘punkies’ – large beetroots (or turnips in Scotland). Carrying their creations, they would visit homes singing the Punkie Night Song and offering prayers in return for cake or money.
FACT: Derry, Northern Ireland, hosts the UK’s largest Halloween celebration, complete with street carnivals, bonfires, firework displays, and a hearty dinner of Colcannon (cabbage and mashed potato) and Barmbrack (fruit cake).
Mexico, El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)
The Mexican Day of the Dead is one of the world’s most famous festivals. Its origin lies in the two-month Aztec Festival of offering foods, alcohol, flowers and ceramics to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead”, to celebrate the harvest and honour death. Today, El Día de los Muertos is a blend of the Aztec festival and the Catholic traditions of the Spanish conquistadors.
On October 31 – November 2, homes are awash with colour and altars decorated with photographs, flowers, drinks and food. The flowers’ brief lifespan symbolises the brevity of life, while brightly coloured bunting, streamers and tissue paper symbolise energy and joy. Beside altars, families leave a washbasin and soap for the dead to wash after their long journey, and light incense to guide them home. On the final day of the festival, relatives have a picnic (party) at graves with tequila and a mariachi band.
FACT: Mexican street parades are some of the most invigorating and lively parties on the planet. The parades are not part of the original tradition, but consequence mainly of Daniel Craig aka.Mr Bond – 007 in Spectre. Often, a living person is carried in a coffin through the streets as vendors toss flowers and fruit into the casket.
China, 盂蘭節, Yulan or Zhongyuan (The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts)
Taoist and Buddhist cultures celebrate 盂蘭節 (The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts). On the fifteenth night of the seventh month (Ghost Month), it is believed that hell’s gates open and deceased spirits roam on earth for twenty-four-hours in search of food and comfort. These spirits are ‘pretas’ – malevolent souls who died in an accident, are unburied, or never received a ritual send-off after death. They have long needle-like necks, because their families had not left food at the grave. Alongside the ‘pretas’, ‘kind ghosts’ also return. To please the kind spirits, families burn joss paper and incense, and prepare an elaborate meal, keeping seats empty at the table for the spirits.
FACT: Fourteen days after the festival, families set lotus-shaped lanterns afloat on rivers or the sea to guide the lost souls to the next life. When the lanterns extinguish, the dead have passed on.
Japan, 于蘭盆會 Obon Festival (Festival of Lanterns)
The Obon, Matsuri or Urabon Festival, Festival of Lanterns, or, 于蘭盆會 – Sanskrit for ‘hanging upside down’, is the Japanese festival to ease the suffering of the dead. Obon begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when dead ancestors return to the world of the living. Families prepare a feast, and as the sun sets, hang paper lanterns outside to guide the spirits home. On the last day of the festival, the lanterns are cast out to sea and huge bonfires lit. The bonfires and lanterns lead the spirits back to the afterlife until next year.
FACT: In the ancient story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha visits his deceased mother in the afterlife. Desperate to set her free from limbo between life and death, the disciple dances the Bon Odori and successfully helps his mother reach the next life. Today, Japanese families dance the Bon Odori to ensure their relatives pass on safely.
Nepal, गाई जात्रा Gai Jatra (Cow Festival)
The Festival of the Cow worships Yamaraj, the God with power over life and death. Celebrations take place on the first day of the dark fortnight, Gunla, in line with the lunar calendar (i.e. sometime between August and September). Every family who had lost a relative in the past year walks through the streets leading a cow. The cow, being highly venerated in Hinduism, is believed to help the dead ascend to heaven.
The Gai Jatra parade originated when the son of  King Pratap Malla of Nepal (1624-74 A.D) died. Desperate to make his distraught wife smile again, the King asked his people to dress in elaborate masks and tell jokes. The people made the queen smiled once again. Today, costumes and colours remain central to Gai Jatra.
FACT: If a cow is unavailable, a young boy in a cow costume is an adequate substitute.
India, पितृ पक्ष Pitru Paksha (Fortnight of the Ancestors)
Pitru Paksha is a sixteen-day Hindu festival honouring the dead (with a lot of food). The festival falls on the second paksha of the lunar month, Bhadrapada (i.e. the first full moon in September), and lasts until the next new moon, Sarvapitri amavasya or Pitru Amavasya. The central ritual is the death rite, Shraddha or Tarpan. For three generations, a Hindu believes, the dead reside in Pitru-loka, a realm between heaven and earth, with Yama, God of the Dead. A son in the family of the dead must perform Shraddha to help his ancestor ascend to heaven. The son calls on his ancestor to reside inside a ring of kush grass, which he wears on his finger. If the ancestor is happy with his son’s performance, he will grant him health, wealth, knowledge, longevity and moksha (salvation).
FACT: The festival feast must include Kheer (a sweet rice with milk), lapsi (a sweet porridge made of wheat grains), rice, dal, the vegetable guar (spring bean) and a yellow gourd.