Tonight is Hallowe’en – that special time of year when dark magic is in the air, all manner of creatures come out from their hiding places, and even the spirits of the dead might come out to see us. You might see a goblin creeping up the pavement on your way home from work, or bump into a vampire in Tesco’s!
But while we all know the normal traditions of this spooky time of year, from children trick-or-treating in order to get some delicious candy, to the grinning faces of jack-o-lanterns carved from pumpkins, the real focus of Halloween is a supposed joining of the worlds of the living and the dead, and a chance of a meeting between the two. Here are five Hallowe’en-like festivals from around the world, which you may not have heard of.
Samhain – Scotland and Ireland
Hallowe’en as we know it is mostly celebrated in Christian countries, and therefore coincides with the festival of All Hallow’s Eve. This is the day before All Saints’ Day, the holiest day in the Christian calendar. But, in parts of the United Kingdom, the origins of Halloween go back much further.
Originating in Ireland, but also celebrated in Scotland, Samhain, or Samhuinn, was a time when the ancient Celts believed that the spirits of the dead could cross over to the mortal world, and people in Scotland and Ireland today still make bonfires in order to draw them in. The Irish also make a special fruitcake named barmbrack, which contains all kinds of strange objects. What you find in the cake can supposedly tell your future – a ring, for example, predicts marriage, and coins predict future riches!
Dia De Los Muertos – Latin America
Keeping up our theme of contacting the dead, Dia De Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is an annual festival that takes place, mainly in Mexico, but elsewhere in Latin America too, from November the first to the second.
It is believed that the gates of Heaven themselves open on the night of October 31st, allowing the souls of children to be reunited with their parents for 24 hours. Two days later, on the 2nd of November, the adults come down to join the party!
As such, everything must be carefully prepared for their arrival. People wear distinctive skull-like make-up, to make the returning souls feel more at home, They also prepare special altars for the spirits of their relatives, complete with food offerings including a special bread called pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Childrens’ altars are also prepared with toys and sweets, but those of adults more often with cigarettes and shots of alcohol!
Yu Lan (The Hungry Ghost Festival) – Hong Kong
Something which unites all of the festivals in this blog is great regard for the dead. Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in Hong Kong, China from mid-August to mid-September, is no exception. It is believed that, much like in Dia De los Muertos, the spirits of the dead return to our world at this time, and wander restlessly – and their time spent in the afterlife has left them hungry!
To satisfy the restless souls, much like in Dia de Los Muertos, food offerings are left outside to the spirits, and the people of Hong Kong burn fake money in offering to their departed relatives. Temporary stages, made of bamboo, are also built in the city, which host opera performances in honour of the dead.
Pitru Paksha – India
In the Hindu religion, the god of death is Yama. When you die, it is believed he takes you to Purgatory to see the last three generations of your relatives. However, for 16 days during the second Paksha of the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada (usually August-September) he allows the dead to return and visit their living relatives.
This festival is known in India as Pitru Paksha, and much like our other festivals, people offer food to the returning dead – in this case kheer (sweet rice and milk), lapsi (a sweet porridge), rice, lentils, spring beans, and pumpkins, which are cooked in silver or copper pots and served on banana leaves.
However, this is a risky business. Unless a ritual known as the Shradda is performed correctly following the dead person’s visit, their soul could end up wandering the Earth forever!
Zaduszki – Poland (and other Slavic countries)
Bringing us back to Europe, Zaduszki, taking place in the first two days of November, is the equivalent of All Souls’ Day for Polish Catholics. Much like in the other festivals here, it is believed that the dead return at this time : and great care must be taken to make sure they enjoy their break from the afterlife!
As such, on the first day of Zaduszki, a great deal of care is taken over the final resting places of the dead. People travel to graveyards, sometimes making great journeys, to maintain the gravesites of their departed relatives, leaving candles and offerings of flowers. During the holiday, people are very careful not to disturb the dead – even going to bed earlier, and keeping dogs on their chains so they don’t interfere with the spirits!
On the final day, after the dead have had their time in the world of the living, a special mass is held to preside over their return to the afterlife. This is treated with absolute reverence – no living person can watch this ceremony, with often severe punishments for intruders.
Zaduszki is also observed, by other names, in many other Slavic countries, including Russia, Bulgaria and Slovakia.