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Halloween Cultures Across the Globe

With Halloween just around the corner, Ciara Judge looks at the origins of the holiday we know today and the world-wide tradition of honouring the dead

Halloween is just around the corner and whether we like it or not, within days of entering autumn, supermarkets galore start stocking up on pumpkins, ghoulishly themed costumes and decorations.

Halloween’s origins can be found in the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. The Celts used it to celebrate the end of the harvest season, but also to acknowledge the bridge between the living and the world of the dead. Halloween came to the United States most notably in the second half of the nineteenth century, when America was flooded with millions of transatlantic migrants, bringing with them their own traditional Halloween customs. Lingering Puritan traditions prevented the complete observance of the holiday up until the nineteenth century, despite All Saints’ Day being observed, in which prayers from the living could help speed the process of spirits reaching heaven.

In the later 1800’s the holiday became more centred on the community, and in the 1920’s and 1930’s the holiday became a popular community driven celebration. This is also when the ‘trick-or-treat’ tradition first became popular. Over the millennia the holiday transitioned to what we know it as today. The tradition of dressing up is one of the oldest practices of the holiday.

In the Celtic beginnings, many feared that ghosts would roam the area around their homes and that they might be accosted. They began to wear masks and costumes to fool the spirits into believing they were ghosts as well and would let them pass on their way unharmed. Interestingly, in the 1950’s the holiday was aimed more towards the young to limit vandalism, which is still a problem prevalent today – October 31st is considered one the busiest days of the year for the emergency services.

Although we are well acquainted with the western-style traditions of Halloween, across the world the holiday is synonymous with festivals that honour the dead. Whether out of respect or spectral superstition, what results varies, from public holidays set for commemoration to colossal parties. We looked to the corners of the globe to find the creepy yet beautiful goings on around this time of year.

In the Far East, Japan celebrates the Bon Festival, which has been taking place for over five hundred years. Bon lasts for three days, mostly celebrated in August. Despite its emphasis on the eerily spiritual it’s not considered a morbid or solemn time. The festival includes an array of fireworks, feasts and dances, all to welcome the spirits. The festival originates from a legend in which a man asked Buddha for help and saw that his deceased mother was trapped in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. Buddha suggested that he may homage to the monks and once he did he saw the release of his mother. Overcome with the joyous outcome, he broke into a dance called the ‘Bon’.

In Nepal, Gaijatra (Festival of the Cows) is a light-hearted celebration where processions of cows are marched through various town centres by families who have recently lost a loved one. Cows are considered holy in Hinduism and it is thought that they can help guide the deceased to the afterlife, therefore helping the acceptance and passing of those who have died.

Another commemoration honouring the dead is Famadihana (‘Turning of the Bones’), celebrated in Madagascar. Although it is not a set festival, but rather an interesting tradition where every winter, the Malagasy people will open tombs, have the corpses removed to be wrapped in silk and then carried around the tomb to the sound of live celebratory music. This fascinating tradition comes from the belief that the spirit of the dead cannot fully go to the land of the ancestors until the body is completely decomposed. Every seven years they rewrap and put the corpse back into the tomb for a celebration. It is a celebration that unites the community together.

Lastly, one of the most famous and colourful festivals in the world is Mexico’s El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This happens around the same time as Halloween. The images of grinning skeletons, feasting, singing and dancing, with colourful decorations, accompany this national holiday, which has spread throughout the world and is instantly recognisable. This holiday is not solemn or morbid but aims to celebrate the cycle of life and death. Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuati. Similarly in Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday where people gather at cemeteries and pray for the dead.

Pumpkins and slutty cats have never felt so boring. Happy Halloween!

Follow Ciara on Twitter: @CiaraAoife_


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