WORLD OF THE DEAD
Whether you’re spending tonight taking candy from strangers, going out in your underwear and some form of animal ears or staying home to watch The Exorcist, spare a thought for the dead folk who make it all possible.
Across the world no matter what race or religion – we as people share a common desire to celebrate key periods of our existence from life to death. When our loved ones are gone we keep celebrating them, sometimes more than we do the living!
My Halloween treat is 5 of the world’s most interesting festivals of the dead:
DIA DE MUERTOS – DAY OF THE DEAD – MEXICO
1st – 2nd November
Mexico’s Day of the Dead comes from the Aztec belief that the dead are always lurking in Mitclan (a sort of waiting room for spirits) and they can return home any time they like. So on 1st – 2nd November each year (coinciding with All Saints Day and All Souls Day) people all over Mexico help the dead find their way home through offerings and colourful celebrations. Families build yellow arches for spirits to enter from the underworld, clean and decorate graves before all-night graveside vigils and erect altars piled high with offerings of flowers, ribbons, candles, fruit, sweets and of course water (as the spirits will be thirsty after the journey).
The first day, Dia de Angelitos – Day of Little Angels, is dedicated to children who have passed and the second day is dedicated to adults. Traditionally on children’s day toys and sweets are left at the altars and on adults day cigarettes and Mizcal shots.
The Sugar Skull –
In the 17th Century Mexico was abundant in sugar production and too poor for the expensive church decorations seen around Europe, and so they took to sugar art for their religious festivals. The sugar skull represents a departed soul, traditionally placed on a gravestone as an offering with the departed’s name written across the forehead.
During Dia De Muertos parades and parties fill the streets, markets fill with sugar skulls and edible miniature coffins, families gather and feasts are had –
all to honour, celebrate and welcome home those who have passed.
CHUNG YUAN – HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL – CHINA
Fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month
The Chinese believe that during the seventh lunar month the doors to the afterworld are thrown open for restless spirits to roam the earth – settling old scores, haunting the living and searching for food. This is a time of fear more than celebration – some people won’t leave the house after dark in fear of what ghosts might be lurking, won’t go near water in fear of being dragged under by the hungry dead, won’t whistle or tell ghost stories in fear of attracting passing spirits, and won’t hang washing out at night in case passing ghosts get tangled in their sheets.
On the fifteenth day opera performances, banquets, parties and parades are thrown to appease the spirits (don’t sit in an empty chair at a party, it’s probably reserved for a ghost). Hungry spirits are fed through offerings of food and drink, new shoes and money to be used in the underworld –
many take to the streets to burn clothing and bank notes (or “hell money”) as presents are believed to reach the underworld through fire.
Water lanterns and paper ships are floated on rivers to help the hungry spirits find their way back home until next time.
FAMADIHANA – TURNING OF THE BONES – MADAGASCAR
Every seven years from June to September
During the ‘Turning of The Bones’ celebration families gather at their clan’s tomb to pay respect to deceased ancestors. They prise through stone and mud to greet the straw-wrapped bodies which are then passed above the heads of the dancing family before being sprayed with perfume and lovingly re-wrapped in special lambas (scarves).
Before the bodies are laid to rest once again families take the chance to spend time with their deceased ancestors – lining up for family photos, sitting in contemplation and dancing together around the tombstone. The bodies are then returned to their resting place with offerings of money, alcohol and photographs. Unless there’s a family crisis the ritual won’t take place for another seven years.
FIESTA DE SANTA MARTA DE RIBARTEME –
FESTIVAL OF THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE – SPAIN
This festival of the nearly-dead combines Christianity and Pagonism to celebrate the survival of those who have seen their lives flash before their eyes. Those who have had a recent near-death experience climb into coffins which are carried in procession through a cemetary and to Santa Marta de Ribarteme – the Church of Saint Martha. Saint Martha is said to have brought many men back from from the brink of death and those who have recently come close pay gratitude for their survival with a mass below her statue.
Family members carry the coffins of their loved ones and chant:
“Virgin Santa Marta, star of the North, we bring you those who saw death”.
The ritual culminates in an outdoor festival throughout the entire village of Las Nieves – fireworks, brass bands, stories of brushes with death and traditional feasts of octopus cooked in copper cauldrons.
ALL HOLLOW’S EVE AND THE SAMHAIN – IRELAND
Halloween as we know it today is a time for celebrating the dead and the terrifying with costumes, parties, carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples, eating sweets and egging houses.
In Celtic Ireland around 2,000 years ago the end of harvest festival know as the Samhain marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter – the division between the two seasons. It was believed that at this time the division of the living world and the underworld was at its thinnest and so spirits could pass through easily.
Deceased ancestors were welcomed with celebration and the sacrifice of livestock – their bones cast into communal fires and food offerings made. The living wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as evil spirits so they wouldn’t be bothered by the real ones – this ritual survived the test of time as we still wear Halloween costumes every 31st October
(although I doubt the “slutty cat” was a top choice back then).
Christianity incorporated the honouring of dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd. The ‘Halloween’ that we know today comes from a combination of All Hallow’s Eve (the eve before All Saints and All Souls Day) and the Samhain (pronounced Sow-een).
When the Irish emigrated to America they took their Halloween traditions with them. It then became the huge holiday it is today and celebrated widely across most western countries. it’s also where pumpkin carving (originally an American harvest tradition) became one of Halloween’s most popular rituals.
Do you have any traditions or rituals from your local area?
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Photos in this post are not my own.
Descriptions based on various sources – may not always be completely accurate but as close as possible!