Season of Spirits
Updated: Apr 8
Autumn Festivals across religious and geographic divides celebrate the end of the harvest and honor or fear the dead.
Halloween, October 31st, is the only day of the year that I can dress up as a teacup, and no one will think twice about it. There are other reasons it is my favorite time of the year. The sweaters come out and the leaves start to change; they paint the south in brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. I love the pumpkins, the apples, the fact that it is socially acceptable to order chai⎼ not that weather ever dictates my chai addiction. It’s easier to list all the things I hate about this time of year. I got nothing.
“Halloween” Juniors Give their Conception. Los Angeles Herald. (Los Angeles, California) October 30, 1910.
From decorating the apartment to carving a pumpkin, I was ready to take on everything I could to get into the Halloween spirit. However, this year as I was wistfully munching on pumpkin seeds and caramel corn, it crossed my mind that I do not know much about my favorite holiday beyond the Americanized experiences that I have had. If this internship has taught me anything so far, it is the value of exploring differing perspectives, whether in a religious context or just a matter of differing worldviews.
U.S. - Halloween
'Tis night for revel, set apart To reillume the darkened heart, And rout the hosts of Dole. 'Tis night when Goblin, Elf, and Fay, Come dancing in their best array To prank and royster on the way, And ease the troubled soul.
The ghosts of all things, past parade, Emerging from the mist and shade That hid them from our gaze, And full of song and ringing mirth, In one glad moment of rebirth, Again they walk the ways of earth, As in the ancient days …
—J.K. Bangs, Harper's Weekly, Nov. 5, 1910.
Halloween also called All Hallows Eve, is originally a Christian celebration with the following day, November 1st, being cast as All Saints Day. My memory failed me after this point. I didn’t even know that before Christianity spread through Roman conquest, Halloween was a Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). Samhain commenced the evening of October 31st and ushered in the Celtic New Year on November 1st. The Celts believed the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead would weaken allowing spirits visitation rights, if only for the night. As a clever ploy to trick wandering spirits costumes were commonplace. Dressing up would protect humans from the fae, ghosts, and other supernatural beings wandering between worlds, so the costumes were a form of camouflage to trick visiting spirits into thinking that the living people were also dead.
Mexico - Dia de Los Muertos
Other cultures and religions have different approaches to the root purpose. Dia de Los Muertos and Halloween are festivals that celebrate the end of the harvest season and the coming of winter. There are several similarities between Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos. Instead of hiding from visiting souls, as with Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration for remembering the dead and calling forth past family members. Rather than shy away from topics of death and grief, Dia de Los Muertos honors the dead, and honors death itself as a natural part of being human. An altar adorned with pictures of the departed family members with their favorite foods, beverages, and flowers, calls forth those spirits to reunite with their relatives. Also integral to the decor are the cempasuchil flowers, whose brief life span is meant to be a reminder of the brevity of life and whose bright colors are believed to be a guide for the dead back to their loved ones.
India - Pitru Paksha or Shraddha
In Hinduism, when a person dies, the soul must leave Earth in a “dignified" manner. To ensure that the souls can pass on, Hindus celebrate the Pitru Paksha. It is a 16-day time period in which the souls of the deceased return to see their family members. Therefore, to ensure they attain Moksha and tranquility, people offer food. Cooked rice or black sesame seeds are popular choices. The ritual is called Pind Daan, for appeasing those who no longer exist in physical form. People offer prayers and perform rituals to help the souls get freed from the cycle of birth, life, and death.
Cambodia - Pchum Ben
Pchum Ben is a 15-day Buddhist festival, which is celebrated because they believe that in death they become ghosts whose earthly actions shape their being. People pray to help their ancestors pass on to a better life. According to Khmer belief, people who do not follow the practices of Pchum Ben will be cursed by angry ancestors, so the living relatives ease their sufferings by offering them food.
Japan - Obon
Obon is an annual Buddhist celebration very similar to Dia de Los Muertos in that people invite the spirits of the dead to come to visit and even light lanterns to guide them between Earth and the spirit realm. It starts with a family pilgrimage to their relative's graves. There is a ritual cleaning after which the families pray for their peaceful spirit wherever they are. Obon is one of the few events in the Japanese calendar that focuses on the importance of families being together, including living relatives and the dead.
There are so many different cultures, religions, and worldviews, yet, there is more overlap between the festivals listed above than I thought. All the festivals mention that spiritual walls between the living and the dead are blurred during this period. However, cultures like the U.S. put a negative connotation on death and its meaning as opposed to Mexico or Japan who implements the festival period as a form of remembrance and celebration. It is interesting to me how the beliefs of these festivals can match so similarly, yet the context in the way that the celebrations occur can vary widely. I hope you enjoyed learning about the different ways that people across different cultures, worldviews, and religions celebrate Autumn.
https://www.neh.gov/divisions/preservation/featured-project/superstitions-and-celebrations-halloween-history-in-chronicl - History of Halloween in the U.S.
https://culturallyours.com/2019/10/24/culture-and-tradition-of-halloween-from-around-the-world/ - Overview of other countries' religious festivals
http://ilovesugarskulls.com/ - Sugar Skull Art for Dia de Los Muertos