Here’s a scary thought for you, Halloween is just around the corner! AAAHH how spooooky! Halloween is the holiday of all things creepy and ghoulish, but it is also the celebration of the dead. In America, people dress up in costumes, kids go trick-or-treating, and we decorate the house with hanging spider webs and expressive jack-o-lantern pumpkins. In my family my mom likes to put up an inflatable ghost in our apartment complex patio. It is so huge it bounces around when the wind is blowing. Really, it’s hilarious.
This frightening festival started way back about 2,000 years ago in the area of the world that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. In this area lived a group of people called the Celts. The Celts’ lives revolved around growing their food, and considered the end of the year to be the end of the harvest season. So, they celebrated new year’s eve each year on October 31st with a festival called “Samhain,” (pronounced ‘sow-in’) named after their Lord of the Dead (also known as the Lord of Darkness). To celebrate Samhain, the Celts built huge sacred bonfires which the Celts gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their ancient gods. During the celebration, the Celts dressed up in costumes consisting of animal heads and skins, and tried to tell each other’s fortunes. The Celts eventually were conquered by the Romans, and by the year 43 AD two Roman festivals were combined with the Celtic Samhain festival. The first Roman festival was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples practiced today on Halloween.
By 800 AD, the influence of Christianity spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day replacing the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday. This new holiday is a time to honor saints and martyrs. The combined and updated celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
To this day, many different countries have adopted this spooktacular holiday, celebrating with their own superstitious measures, and unique customes. Some countries celebrate Halloween in a different month! Let’s take a closer look at how some countries celebrates the day of the dead!
In Austria, some people will leave bread, water and a lit lamp on the table before retiring on Halloween night. It was once believed that these items would welcome the dead souls back to earth on a night which for the Austrians was considered to be brimming with strong cosmic energies.
The Belgians believe that it is unlucky for a black cat to cross one’s path and also unlucky if it should enter a home or travel on a ship. The custom in Belgium on Halloween night is to light candles in memory of dead relatives.
The Chinese celebrate’Qingming’ or Tomb Sweeping Day to commemorate and pay respect to a person’s ancestors. On Qingming, families visit the gravesite of their ancestors to show their respect. It is held 107 days after the start of winter and is celebrated on April 4th or April 5th. It is celebrated by pulling weeds from the gravesite and the tombstone is cleaned and swept. New earth is added and willow branches are placed atop the gravesite. Next, joss sticks are placed by the grave and lit, as well as placing an offering of the deceased favorite foods and paper money (devils money) at the tomb. Paper money is burned while family members show their respect by bowing to their ancestors. Fresh flowers are placed at the tomb and some families also plant willow trees. In ancient times, five-colored paper was placed underneath a stone on the grave to signify that someone had visited the grave and that they have not been abandoned.
In Germany, the people put away their knives on Halloween night. The reason for this is because they do not want to risk harm befalling the returning spirits.
In Hong Kong the Halloween celebration is known as “Yue Lan” (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) and is a time when it is believed that spirits roam the world for twenty-four hours. Some people burn pictures of fruit or money believing these images would reach the spirit world and bring comfort to the ghosts.
The Japanese celebrate the Obon Festival which is similar to Halloween festivities in that it is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Special foods are prepared and bright red lanterns are hung everywhere. Candles are lit and placed into lanterns which are then set afloat on rivers and seas. During the Obon Festival a fire is lit every night in order to show the ancestors where their families might be found. The Obon Festival takes place during July or August.
In Czechoslovakia, chairs are placed by the fireside on Halloween night. There is one chair for each living family member and one for each family member’s spririt.
In Mexico, Latin America Spain, Halloween is known as “El Dia de los Muertos.” It is a time to remember friends and family who have passed away. Officially commemorated on November 2 (All Souls’ Day), the three-day celebration actually begins on the evening of October 31. Designed to honor the dead who are believed to return to their homes on Halloween, many families construct an altar in their home and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, fresh water and samples of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks. Candles and incense are burned to help the departed find their way home. Relatives also tidy the gravesites of deceased family members, including snipping weeds, making repairs and painting. The grave is then adorned with flowers, wreaths or paper streamers. On November 2, relatives gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce.
Although Halloween is viewed to many as a day of candy and well thought out pranks, its main purpose is to celebrate the end of one season and the beginning of a new. It is also a day of showing respect to the one’s that have departed from our lives. As we put on our witch hats, and get gussied up in our costumes, let us take a moment to think about someone that has passed away in our lives. Think about the happiness they brought you and the love that was shared through their life time. Take a moment to respect the force of life that can come so quickly and end just as fast. Take time to appreciate the ones that are alive with you right now! Fall is the season of transition and celebration of many festivals. So when Halloween creeps up, don’t forget to pay homage to the dead and spend time with friends and family. When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.