Not Just Halloween: Festivals of the Dead from around the World

Japan | Cambodia | Mexico | Conclusion | Lessons with Cultural Context | Selected Sites | Standards | Featured Lessons | Featured Websites | About the Image

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind.

—“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving

Halloween Poster, 1936-40Each year the ghosts and goblins of Halloween haunt the streets and doorsteps of your neighborhood on October 31st -- even if fewer appear as ghostly bed sheets than as Spiderman and spectacle-wearing young wizards. While many of us associate this holiday with dressing up in costume and in the consumption (or perhaps over-consumption) of sweets, Halloween has its roots in the yearly seasonal changes, and in remembering those who have passed away by comparing their deaths to the dark and cold winter months. And while princess and hobo costumes, trick or treating, and the telling of spooky stories like Washington Irving’s tale of the Headless Horseman are the hallmarks of this very American holiday, the Festivals of the Dead, which form the roots of Halloween are an important part of many cultures around the world. This feature can be used as a framework for discussing with your students Festivals of the Dead in their manifestations across different cultures.

What can be learned from the prevalence around the world and across many different cultures of festivals dedicated to the dead?

The origin of Halloween can be found in the ancient Celtic festival of the dead, Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). From present-day Ireland to the United Kingdom to Bretagne in France, the ancient Celts celebrated October 31st as the day when the normally strict boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became mutable, and the ghosts of those who had passed away came back to earth. The celebration coincided with the final harvests of the year, the stockpiling of stores for the cold winter months when the sun set early and rose late, and when nature itself hibernated, dying until its rebirth in the spring.

After the Roman conquest of much of the Celts’ lands in France and England, Samhain was combined with the Roman festival of the dead, which also took place in the month of October. With the later spread of Christianity, the Church attempted to subsume the festival under the celebration of martyrs and saints held on November 1st, All Saints Day. The Christian festival was called All-Hallows, while the evening before was called All-Hallows-Eve, and later Halloween.

The traditions of dressing up in costume, holding parades, playing scary pranks and tricks on one another and holding celebratory bonfires are some of the oldest practices associated with the holiday. Many worried that on the evening when the ghosts of the departed would be roaming the fields and roads near their homes they might be accosted on their way to and from the celebrations. They began to wear masks and other ghostly gear in order to fool the spirits into believing they, too, were ghosts, so the spirits would let them past on their way unmolested.

Do the Halloween traditions practiced in America today continue to carry any of their more ancient meanings or significance?

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In the twentieth century the focus in the United States has shifted from Halloween being a festival of the dead to being a festival of costumes. The EDSITEment reviewed Web site, the American Memory Project, has numerous original documents, including photographs of children and adults celebrating Halloween from the 1930s, to descriptions of Halloween festivities by Americans early in the twentieth century, to late nineteenth-century magazine articles about the holiday.

Europe and America are by no means the only places with long histories of acknowledging the close of the harvest season through the remembrance of ancestors and strangers who have passed on. These traditions also share many elements with festivals held around the world commemorating the death of spring, as well as loved ones no longer with us. One point of intersection can be found in the offerings of food that were left on doorsteps on All-Hallows-Eve in many parts of Europe and America in the hopes that it might prevent wandering spirits from entering the house. Offerings comprise an integral part of many fall festivals to the dead around the world, such as those celebrated and practiced in Japan, Cambodia, and Mexico.

Why might the making and offering of special foods be an important part of festivals dedicated to the dead?

Japan—The Obon, or the Festival of the Lanterns

The Festival of the Dead in Japan, which is called Obon, is held every year in the month of August. The festival often goes by a second name: The Festival of Lanterns. As in the traditional festival of Halloween, the souls of the departed return to the world of the living during this time. However, unlike Halloween, in which the souls of the dead are often imagined as malevolent or angry, like the Headless Horseman, Obon is a day when the spirits return to visit their relatives.

Many Buddhists in Japan celebrate this holiday by preparing offerings of special food for their ancestors’ spirits, which are placed on altars in temples and in their homes. As the sun goes down families light paper lanterns and hang them in front of their houses to help the spirits find their way home. The celebrations end with families sending colorful paper lanterns lit by candles floating down the rivers and bays of Japan and out to sea. The string of colorful lights bobbing in the water are meant to guide the spirits of their loved ones back to the realm of the dead until next year.

Information on the history of the Obon festival, general information about the Obon, as well as an essay which places the festival within its Buddhist context are all available through EDSITEment-reviewed Web resources. One of the most accessible explanations of the festival, particularly for younger students, is a personal essay written by a man of Japanese descent about an Obon that occurred during his childhood. In addition, there may be students in your classroom who celebrate the Obon each August, as Japanese American communities in the United States often organize festivities, particularly in Hawaii and California. All of these resources are available through the EDSITEment Web resources Asia Source and the American Memory Project.

What can learning about the Obon festival tell us about Japanese culture? What might we learn about the way in which Japanese Buddhists relate to their ancestors in their practices relating to relatives and others who have passed away?

Cambodia—The P’chum Ben at the Pagoda

In the tenth month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in September, Cambodian Buddhists celebrate the Pak Ben, 14 days during which they will wake before dawn each morning to prepare offerings of food and other gifts to the monks living in the local pagoda and to their ancestors. On the 15th day villagers visit the pagoda with offerings of sweet sticky rice and bean treats wrapped in banana leaves and other special foods to mark the P’chum Ben, or the Festival of the Dead, which marks the close of the Pak Ben.

Each morning during the festival offerings of food, often beautifully prepared and decorated, are brought to the many temples and pagodas that dot the Cambodian countryside and cityscapes. These offerings are meant for their relatives who have passed on, and each plate of decorated sweets and fruits are offered with a prayer that they will reach their loved ones. In addition, huge batches of rice mixed with sesame seed are prepared each morning and spread along the ground in front of the pagoda where it is left for the hungry ghosts, as spirits who wander the world without any living ancestors to take care of their memory are known.

The P’chum Ben festival is a day when people wear their finest clothes, get together with family and friends at the local pagoda, listen to music and speeches by monks, abbots and other important local figures, and enjoy the culinary delicacies whipped up for the occasion. While this Buddhist festival has important and serious underpinnings, it is also a time for people to spend a day visiting their friends and families, and enjoying the celebrations.

Information on Cambodia and holidays such as P’chum Ben, as well as the history of the festival, is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Web resource The Center for Liberal Arts. In addition, like the Obon festival, P’chum Ben is celebrated by the Cambodian American communities, such as those in Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts, to name just a few in the United States.

What effect might the location of the festivals to the dead—in the home vs. in the temple—have on the celebrations?

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Mexico—Los Dias de los Muertos, sugared skulls and other delights

Los Dias de los Muertos, or the Mexican Days of the Dead Festival, shares some of its origins with Halloween. And some of the practices today are also similar, from decorating with pictures of skeletons, to ghoulishly shaped sweets. But Los Dias de los Muertos, which may be one of Mexico’s best-known holidays, is also a blending of the European traditions brought by the invading Spanish conquistadors and the Aztec and Mayan peoples who were the inhabitants of much of Central America before the arrival of the Spanish.

The Aztecs’ Festival of the Dead was not a day-long or week-long celebration, but went on for nearly two months in which the fall harvest was celebrated and death was honored. The festival was presided over by the goddess known as Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead. Over the course of the festivities participants would create offerings for the dead such as foods, alcohol, flowers and ceramics.

Aztecs and Mayans both believed that one day of the year the souls of the departed would return to the realm of the living, where they could visit their families and loved ones. With the arrival of the Spanish, and Catholicism, the new rulers of Mexico attempted to marshal the fiestas dedicated to the dead under the auspices of All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd). The dates of these two Catholic holidays are now celebrated in Mexico as Los Dias de los Muertos.

This fiesta is marked by the invitation by the living to the dead to return to their family home for a visit. Families place photographs of their loved ones who have passed on at the deceased’s gravesite or on a family altar. They also place offerings of flowers, drinks and food alongside the photographs. This ritual is particularly important for those who have been lost in the year since the previous festival, and is a way of coming to terms with the death of someone loved and missed.

Extended families will often meet in the cemeteries on the evening of the festival, and will collect together at the gravesite of a recently deceased relative. The family may keep vigil through the night, all the time eating the foods they have made in preparation for the fiesta, visiting with their relatives, and praying for all the members of the family, alive and dead.

The preparation of the altar is an integral part of this fiesta, and some of the objects that are prepared especially for the altar have become a familiar sight to many outside of Mexico. Altars are often decorated with flowers, whose brief life span is meant to be a reminder of the brevity of all life. Brightly colored and intricately cut tissue paper festoon the altar, waving like multi-colored flags. Sweets, fruits, and other foods are joined by the staples: bread, salt, and water. Grooming supplies, such as a washbasin and soap, are provided for the spirits to tidy themselves after their long journey. Finally, the well-known Calaveras statues depicting skeletons participating in the activities of the living- from cooking to playing in mariachi bands- take their place on the altar, where their comic appearance brings a smile to the faces of the grieving.

Additional material on Los Dias de los Muertos can be accessed through a number of EDSITEment-reviewed Web sites. The Center for Liberal Arts provides links to background information, explanations of the festival, and a description of the altar that is prepared for the occasion. Los Dias de los Muertos is celebrated not only in Mexico, but also in neighboring countries, including Guatemala as well as in Mexican American and Guatemalan American communities in the United States. You can learn more about the way that the festival is celebrated in California from the information about Los Dias de los Muertos available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Web resource, the American Memory Project. You can also see the way that the festival has been marked by an elementary school in Texas through the EDSITEment-reviewed Web site The Center for Liberal Arts. Spanish teachers will be able to find information and materials for teaching Spanish language classes about Los Dias de los Muertos by accessing the EDSITEment-reviewed Web resource Casa de Joanna.

How might holding a festival every year to commemorate those that have died help people accept the loss of a loved one?

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Parents and educators might wish to introduce the ideas of this feature using short activities which ask students to think about the meaning of these festivals, and the information they will have gleaned from reading this feature.

1. What are the themes of the Festivals of the Dead?

The appearance of festivals commemorating both people who have died, as well as death itself, can be found in a large number of distinct and different cultures around the world. As our own festival looms in the distance like a lighted jack-o-lantern, the cooler days of October provide a moment to reflect on why these traditions exist in so many diverse contexts and locations.

Have your students work together or individually to find answers to the following questions. Students should find evidence for their answers in the text, or in the web resources linked throughout the text.

  • Why is the honoring of ancestors and death so prevalent across different cultures and contexts?
  • Why does the timing of these festivals often coincide with the last harvest of the year?
  • Why is the offering of food to the spirits such a common practice in connection with these festivals?
  • Why is dressing up- either in one’s finest clothes, or in costume- also a common theme of these festivals?
  • Many of these festivals contain an element of scariness, but many also involve a festive atmosphere that includes bright and beautiful decorations, special foods, and getting together with friends and family. Why do festivals to the dead (which seem like they should be serious and solemn) have so many fun elements?
  • The Obon, P’chum Ben and Los Dias de los Muertos are all festivals whose foundational essence is family. Why is family such an intrinsic part of these festivals?

2. Masks, sweets and costumes

You might ask students to research these and other similar festivals on the Internet, using the reviewed EDSITEment Web sites and links cited below, and to utilize their research to compare and contrast festivals such as All Hallow’s Eve, the Obon, or Los Dias de los Muertos. Their research can be narrowed to themes or objects that are present across cultures and festivals. Suggestions for research topics might include:

  • Masks used in festivals
  • Costumes
  • Food offerings
  • Spooky or ghostly images

Once students have collected data on their topic, you might want to have them compare and contrast the objects and images they have collected together. For example, they might compare the Calaveras statues of skeletons playing guitars with the skeleton images that decorate many American doors on the last day of October. Students should be sure to explain why these objects or images are used in these celebrations, and what meaning they carry in their cultural contexts.

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Lessons with related cultural context:

Selected EDSITEment Web Sites

Standards Alignment

National Council for the Social Studies:

I — Culture

Ii — Time, continuity, and change

Iii — Peoples, places, and environments

V — Individuals, groups, and institutions

Ix — Global Connections

Featured Lessons

Featured Web Sites

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October's "bright blue weather" : A good time to read!.
Poster for the WPA Statewide Library Project, Bender, Albert M., artist.Chicago : Illinois WPA Art Project, [between 1936 and 1940]. Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.