Goblins, ghosts and frights, oh my! That spooky time of year is fast approaching once again, and to celebrate, we’ve searched high and low for the most interesting events around the world that both the living and dead take part in.
What takes place, however, isn’t what you might expect. Festive masks? Bright decorations? Dancing? They’re all just a few of the ways in which we celebrate the deceased around the globe. Read on, if you dare…
You might think that a festival entitled Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) could be a bit of a drag, but this is no sombre occasion!
Dating back nearly 4,000 years, this festival is one of Mexico’s oldest and most unique celebrations (although you‘ll find similar traditions all over Latin America as well). Its origins lie with the Spanish invasion of the Aztecs back in 1521—a time when Spanish-Catholic and Indigenous beliefs and influences converged to form a new festival. Originally a month long, Dia de los Muertos was eventually shortened down to two days, being the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1st and 2nd respectively).
Many Mexicans believe that a person’s soul never dies, so the fiesta begins with an invitation from the living to the dead to return to their family home for a visit. Revelers then gather in homes and in graveyards to share stories about their deceased loved ones.
Beautifully elaborate altars—ofrendas—are created in homes and adorned with photographs and offerings. Families also clean and decorate the burial sites of the departed—you’ll often find graves covered in wild marigolds, candles, and offerings of food and drink.
As the celebrations continue, the melodies you hear floating out of the graveyard aren’t coming from a ghostly choir, but rather from musicians hired to regale the dead with their favourite songs. Meanwhile, the living have their fun too—special foods such as pan de muerto (Day of the Dead sweet egg bread) are enjoyed, while revelers don bright colours, masks and skeletal face paint as they celebrate the circle of life and death.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead is one of the most festive, colorful celebrations on the planet—and it’s changing minds about death.
Sugar skulls (also known as calaveras) are a famous symbol of Day of the Dead fiestas, and are prepared as gifts for both the living and dead. Made from white sugar and decorated with bright colours, patterns, and other touches such as beads, feathers and rhinestones, these spooky treats also feature the recipient’s name on the skull’s forehead.
Every August in Japan, it’s believed that the spirits of ancestors come back for a visit. It’s a time where the living celebrate the Obon Festival—a week of vacation for nearly everyone. During Obon, when spirits return, families take time to bond, pray for the dead in Buddhist temples, clean their homes and offer up a variety of food to the spirits of their ancestors. At the height of the festival, you’ll hear the rhythmic sound of taiko drums booming in the distance—it’s all part of the bon odori folk dance, performed in parks, gardens, shrines and temples.
Obon is also known as the Festival of the Lanterns, and the celebration wraps up with families floating beautiful, candle-lit paper lanterns down the rivers and bays leading out to sea. This beautiful sight is meant to lead the spirits back to the realm of the dead safely until the following year.
A festival for the living, a goodbye to the spirits. Rekindling the spirit and lighting lanterns for the dead... What more could you ask for?
Sacred in the Hindu religion, cows are also central to an eight-day long celebration of death called Gai Jatra—otherwise known as the Festival of Cows.
Usually celebrated between August and September, it’s one of the most popular festivals in Nepal. It’s also a time for families who have lost a loved one within the last year to participate in a procession by leading a cow through the streets of Kathmandu. What happens when you can’t find a cow, you ask? Easy—a young boy dressed up as a cow is considered more than an adequate substitute.
Cows are believed to help a soul’s journey to heaven after death, but Gai Jatra is far from a melancholic affair—jokes and satire also play heavily into the festival, and once the procession ends, masks and costumes are worn and the party begins!
Different countries, different cultures, and so many ways to celebrate our loved ones. Just like Hallowe’en for us, festivals of the dead around the world are a time to celebrate life along with great food, fun, music, and—most importantly—costumes.