Death is a fascinating part of life. So much of our history, literature and art contemplate the perplexing complication of it all. Ancient traditions have come down through the ages and mingled with religious belief to create commemorative events which continue on. Interestingly enough, instead of morbidity most current holiday activities are based around positive traditions, such as the fall harvest:
Sandwiched between the last bounteous harvest days and the darker, hungrier winter months lies Halloween. Halloween emerged from the combination of an old Gaelic holiday called Samhain and a Christian celebration called All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day.
Pronounced “sow-in,” Samhain took place from October 30-November 1 and celebrated the harvest’s end. Also, this was the time when the livestock were either brought in for the colder months or slaughtered and prepared for winter provisions. Revelers celebrated with ritualistic bonfires, story-telling and food offerings to the fairies and spirits who had more power to move between the realms of life and death more freely. The food offerings were meant to please the spirits so that they would watch over everyone during the upcoming winter. Revelers dressed up to blend in with the visiting spirits, which led to the current-day costumes.
All Saints Day and All Souls Day take place on October 31 and November 1 respectively. All Saints Day honors deceased Christians (primarily within Catholic and Protestant denominations) who have been redeemed by communicating with God face to face. All Souls Day remembers the spirits of those who have not yet attained this level of redemption. It was customary for the living pray for the welfare of these unredeemed spirits. On All Souls Day, the poor would beg for food and money in exchange for prayers. People would give out sweets aptly named “soul cakes.”
Some historians believe another ancient celebration contributed to Halloween. The Romans honored their ancestral dead during Feralia. The holiday’s function was to recognize family obligations and ties between the living and the dead. As part of the festival, revelers brought flower garlands and food offerings to ancestral tombs.
Immigration played a big role Halloween’s evolution. Specifically, the influx of Irish immigrants following the potato famine in 1846 brought enlivened Halloween celebrations with their traditions and passion for partying. The truth is that Halloween is a melting pot of traditions from all over the world and is currently the second largest commercial holiday in the United States. In fact, Americans will spend close to seven billion dollars on costumes, candy and décor this year.
Other countries continue traditions honoring the dead as well.
On November 1-2, All Saints Day and All Souls Days continue to honor the faithful who have gone on before.
The Day of the Dead is observed November 1-2. Day of the Dead originated from an Aztec harvest celebration. Goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead, presided over this harvest festival, which adapted to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Aspects of the original festival include welcoming the spirits of deceased children (angelitos) on October 31. This is when the children are allowed to come back from the dead to visit with their living parents. On November 2, the spirits of adults return to visit. The belief is that the festivities reaffirm ties between the living and dead closer, solidifying their dependence on one another. Toys, trinkets and candy are left at the graves of the child spirits, while liquor, fruit and tortillas are there for the adults. The living bake pan de muerto, or bread of the dead. They mold the dough into skull shapes and use icing to spell out the names of the deceased.
Obon is a Buddhist holiday which honors familial ancestors. The festivities takes place in mid-August and are meant to express gratitude to those who once lived so that their descendants could have the chance to do the same. For this reason, Obon is an optimistic holiday, full of dancing and celebrating. The festival commemorates a time when a man asked Buddha for help to free his mother from hungry ghosts. Buddha instructed him on how to save her.
Chuseok is held over three days in the fall. During this time, Koreans return to their ancestral homes and give thanks to their deceased ancestors for the harvest. North Koreans return to the ancestral homes if they can get the proper travel documents. Living descendants honor their ancestors by placing special rice cakes (Sonpyeon) at their graves. Communities share the harvest, making this an occasion for a lot of food, drink, dancing and story-telling.
Gi Jarta, or the Festival of the Cows, hinges on the Hindu belief that cows are sacred and guide the deceased spirits to the afterlife. During the festival, which falls in August or September, cows are gathered and are navigated through town centers. Each cow represents a loved one who died over the previous year. (If a cow cannot be found, a people dress as cows). The event honors the cow as a sacred animal, as well as the deceased.
Pchum Ben takes place between mid-September to mid-October every year. The well-attended, 15-day celebration is extremely well-attended. People gather at Pagodas dressed in white (the color of mourning) to honor their ancestors. Because the ghosts are thought to be hungry, living descendants bring food and drink, which Buddhist monks offer to the spirits.
During the Ghost Festival, which falls in July or August, spirits come from the underworld and visit their living descendants. Celebrators set places at the dinner table for the deceased, as well as burn joss paper (decorative paper also called ghost money) or paper currency to honor the deceased. There are other offerings made as well. In fact, Buddhism and Taoism calls for living descendants to ease the suffering for the deceased—specifically their hunger. The belief is that if proper ritualistic offerings are made and accepted, the deceased ancestors will reward the descendants. Following the festival, people place lit lanterns in the form of a flower in rivers and lakes. The lanterns are meant to lead the deceased safely back to the underworld.
Overall, the festivals are positive events honoring the dead. Most take place between August and October, or harvest time. Built into our humanity is our regard for our loved ones, both living and dead. For this reason, it is important to leave our legacies. Providing our stories and expressing our final wishes is an important part of our lives. Let willbox.me help you will all of your digital afterlife, online legacy, electronic will and virtual safe deposit box needs. Go to willbox.me for more information. Now is always the best time to begin.