All Hallows’ Eve, also known as Halloween has its roots in the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. The ancient Celts believed the border between this world and the other world became thin enough to pass through at this time.
Ghost Festival, also called Hungry Ghost Festival, is a Buddhist celebration. In places in the Far East, like China and Thailand, religious chanting in conjunction with arrays of foods, exquisitely prepared, are offered to the deceased in the temples. The significance is to open the gates of Hell, permitting all ghosts to eat and drink.
In Tirol, Austria, cakes are left on the table at night and kept warm to comfort the dead who might visit. In Brittany, France, people flock to the cemeteries at night fall to kneel bareheaded at graves of loved ones, anointing the tombstones with holy water and milk. In Poland, Zaduszki, on November first, is a Polish tradition of lighting candles and visiting graves. The roots of this holiday can be traced back to Slavic ancient mythology. This celebration is so popular in Poland, that most commercial activities cease because the traffic on the streets is so congested. The people walk solemn and silent, filling the streets and cemeteries with thousands of glowing candles.
Arab Christians and Muslims of Lebanon, Palestine and Syria celebrate Thursday of the Dead. Festive family meals are prepared. Some visit the cemeteries before sunrise to pray for the departed, and then prepare food to give to their families and children, as well as the poor. Usually the foods given are colored eggs, usually yellow, and bread cakes called the “yellow roll” and dried fruit.
One of the most interesting, perhaps because so much is written, is the Day of the Dead. It is celebrated throughout Latin America, Mexico and some bordering U.S. states as well. It began as an ancient Aztec celebration in August. It appears that Spanish influence and the Catholic Church might have combined “All Saints Day” or “All Souls Day” while preparing the calendars. The celebrating begins on the 28th or 29th of October and ends on November 2nd.
Thousands make the pilgrimage back to their homelands to honor their ancestors. Succulent meals are prepared, including “Bread of the Dead”. It is a cinnamon or anise flavored loaf of bread, which once baked, resembles the shape of a skull. It is iced and decorated with shapes of favorite items of the departed. Candy is also skull shaped. There are plenty of drinks provided, including an ancient traditional drink called “atole”. It is made from cornmeal and water then flavored with various fruits. Lights, flowers and music play a significant part of the celebrating. Yellow marigolds, the symbol of death are displayed as decoration every where.
The ancient beliefs of the native people of Mexico were that all souls do not die, but they are merely resting in Mictlan (Place of Death). It was a dark place, but not foreboding. The departed were not waiting for judgment or resurrection, but just a chance to revisit their loved ones. Their spirits could not be seen, but would surely be felt. That was very different from the Catholic belief of Hell and Heaven.
Since early childhood the children are prepared to participate in the three hour walk called the “Vigil of the Little Angels”. Little girls dress in their finest dresses and shoes. Under the supervision of their mothers, fathers and brothers usually watch from a distance, the little girls carry flowers, toys and lighted candles to the cemetery to adorn the altars of the deceased loved ones. It is the belief, that when a child dies, the parents must accept with a good attitude and permit willingly their little one to serve as an angel. They wish not to cry, but light fireworks. The families then make their ways back to their homes. The journey to the cemetery has taken most of the night.
Then there’s our Halloween! Celebrated in the U.S., Canada, UK, and Ireland with costume parties, trick or trick, pumpkin carving, ghost tours and haunted events. Memorial Day is our more serious event for honoring our ancestors. Most of us, including most churches view Halloween as a purely secular holiday, devoted to celebrating “imaginary spooks”, giving out candy, and dressing up as your favorite character or spook.
However different the celebrations are throughout the world, they are all still similar. Some are filled exuberance and flare and others dedication and reflection.
One of my passions has been the collecting of folklore stories and customs from different countries. It is just one more way that we understand the views and morals of other people, those of our past and the people of the world around us. Some folks seem so different at first glance, but as you seek to “first, understand them”, you have a greater chance of peacefully living together. You realize how many things you have in common, and how interesting the differences are.