Honoring the Dead- Death Holidays Around the World

In the US Halloween has become a multi-billion dollar industry as Americans happily spend money on candy, costumes and spooky décor.

It’s hard to imagine that our modern holiday retains any of its original traditions but if you look close enough you can still find them underneath all the masks, fake cobwebs and grinning jack-o-lanterns.

The origin of Halloween can be traced to the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter. The earliest Halloween celebrations were held by the Druids to honor Samhain, the Lord of the Dead. This festival was held on November 1, which was also the Celtic New Year. The beginning of winter- when the light loses and the night wins.

The Celts believed that spirits from the other world came the night before Samhain and destroyed vegetation with their cold, icy breath. The spirits left the land barren for the winter.

Samhain was the most sacred Celtic festival, the rituals linked people to their ancestors and the past. Spirits held the secrets of the afterlife and the future so during this time predictions has more power and omens could be read with more clarity. The Druid priests would seek knowledge through divination to help the tribe- things like health, wealth, the best time to move, when to make magic, how to cure an illness.

Legend says that Samhain assembled the souls of all those who had died the previous year. This “Samhain Vigil” was when he sentenced the dead, he would judge them. Sinning souls were confined to the shapes of lesser animals or twelve months. Good souls were sentenced to another twelve months of death but were allowed to take human shape. 

Gifts and offerings were thought to make Samhain more temperate so he would release souls to visit with their loved ones.

The Celts wore disguises to avert malicious spirits while putting out food and wine for their ancestors. A parade would lead spirits out of town. If they thought the spirits needed more appeasement they would offer sweet treats to send them on their way.

In early days horses and humans were sacrificed, the humans were usually criminals. Confined in wicker and thatch cages shaped as giants and animals they were set on fire and roasted alive.

This practice was outlawed by the Romans after the conquest of Britain. In 61 A.D. Suetonius ordered the sacrificial groves and augury to be destroyed. But the rites continued in many forms for centuries.

In medieval Europe black cats were placed in wicker baskets and burned alive on Halloween. The cats were thought to be witches familiars or witches shapeshifted into cat form.

In Britain horses were sacrificed as late as 400 A.D during the feasts of Samhain.

Even after the church Christianized Pagan practices oxen were sacrificed on Hallowmas to honor the saints. They were sometimes led through the church to the altar.

In the eighth century Samhain became All Saint’s Day which is also called All Hallows, and Hallowmas. The night before became All Hallows Eve. The name was shortened with time to Hallows Eve,  Hallowe'en, and eventually Halloween.

Halloween has held on to its macabre nature throughout the centuries.

Traditions like souling and guising were precursors to our modern trick or treating.

In England the poor would go souling door to door begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the givers and their deceased. This would occur on November 2, All Souls Day.

Guising, the tradition of wearing costumes and going door to door begging for food while singing or reciting verse, can be traced back to Scotland as far back as the 16th century. There are many accounts of it in Ireland and throughout Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many Halloween customs were brought to the US in the mid-19th century when the Irish famine drove thousands to immigrate to the United States. Where the Irish went, Halloween followed.

The Irish customs blended with rituals practiced by the Germans, Scots, and English.

By the turn of the 20th century Halloween had become a full blown American holiday. By 2013 more than 150 million consumers participated in American Halloween spending.

But Halloween isn’t the only celebration of the dead.

Death is the one thing that connects us all. Inescapable, death will visit each and every one of us.

That is why throughout time and around the world people of different religions, backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities have had special days dedicated to honoring their dead. 

Death festivals are not meant to be scary. They are a way to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. Understanding death and knowing that we will not be forgotten, that our loved ones will remember us long after we're gone, can help ease our fears. 

In Bolivia relatives decorate the skulls of their dead on November 9th, known as the Day of the Skulls.

The Tuaregs, who are a wandering people of the Sahara, visit graves on the first day of Ramadan.

Jewish people visit graves in the month of Tishri.

Near Indonesia on the island of Bali spirits of the ancestors are believed to return during the first five weeks of the Buddhist year.

The Hopi Native Americans summon their dead during a festival at the summer solstice.

In ancient Egypt, the Day of the Dead was celebrated during the winter solstice to honor the god Osiris. The souls of the dead returned to the land of the living. Food was spread out for them and lamps were lit and left burning throughout the night to guide their way home.

In Greece the festival of the dead was held in February. The third day of the Dionysus feast of Anthesteria. After the first days of feasting and merriment, the third day was dedicated to dead souls. They didn’t welcome the souls readily, in fact they heavily guarded their homes and temples against lingering souls and at the end of the festival would chase the spirits away with exorcism: “Begone ye Keres. Anthesteria is over.” ( Halloween Through Twenty Centuries by Ralph and Adelin Linton)

The Romans celebrated Parentalia, a nine day festival beginning February 13 honoring the dead. During this time temples were closed and marriages were forbidden. This was an official holiday on the religious calendar but celebrations were mostly private. Families made offerings of food, milk, wine and honey to their dead and decorated tombs with garlands of flowers. The last day of the festival, Feralia, was a public day to honor the dead.

An ancient ritual of the dead celebrated in Rome May 9, 11, and 13 was called Lemuria or Lemuralia. During this festival Romans performed exorcism rights to free malevolent and fearful ghosts. It is thought that this custom was Christianized and turned into All Saints’ Day which was later moved to November.

On All Souls’ Day in Naples, Italy people visit the dead and leave “calling cards” by penciling their names on relatives’ tombs. The night before All Souls, people visit cemeteries and dress up the exposed remains of dead relatives.

On All Souls’ Day in France churches are draped in darkness and feature funeral songs and prayers for the dead.

Haiti celebrates All Souls Day on November 2, decorating in purple, white and black- the colors of the Vodou- the spirits of the dead. People give offerings to Baron Samedi, the loa of the dead.

In Guatemala the dead are celebrated on November 1, All Saint’s Day with a kite festival. Colorful kites are flown over graveyards, thought to reach the spirits in heaven.

Hungry Ghost Festival

For Buddhists and Taoists in China and many other Asian countries, an entire month is spent honoring their ancestors, called Hungry Ghost Month. The month ends with the Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as the Zhongyuan Festival.

During the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival, the gates of the afterlife are opened and spirits are free to return to earth in search of food, entertainment and mischief. Like Halloween the Hungry Ghost Festival balances fear and frivolity. Though some people are afraid to go out at night because ghosts who have passed through the gates might haunt them.

The festival takes place every year on the evening of the 15th day of Ghost Month, the 7th month on the lunar calendar when the gates to the netherworld are said to be wide open to the world of the living. Ghost month occurs in July or August on Western calendars.

Celebrations include parades, lantern release, and offerings on altars. Families place paper offerings like fake money, paper cars, watches, etc. into metal bins. The paper is set on fire to send prosperity to the ancestors in the afterlife.

Pchum Ben

Between mid-September and mid-October each year Cambodians celebrate Pchum Ben.

Pchum Ben is one of the most important holidays on the Khmer religious calendar. For fifteen days Cambodians gather at pagodas wearing white, the color of mourning, to remember their ancestors.
During Pchum Ben the line between the living and dead is at its thinnest. At this time spirits come back to the world of the living wishing to atone for the sins of their past life.

Similar to Chinese beliefs, the spirits are thought to wander the world of the living as hungry ghosts. They are offered food and drink to appease their otherworldly hunger. Cambodians carry food to the pagodas where Buddhist monks make the offerings to the spirits.

Visitors can see Pchum Ben rituals and festivities in almost any Cambodian city just remember it is a religious holiday so you must observe certain requirements, such as wearing white. Avoid wearing tank tops, shorts or other clothing that might be deemed disrespectful.

Toro Nagashi and Obon

First held in 1946, Toro Nagashi (flowing lanterns) is a Japanese ceremony to commemorate the souls of the dead. Participants float glowing paper lanterns down the Sumida River in Tokyo. Toro Nagashi was put on hold in 1965 for 40 years while flood walls were installed on the riverbank.  It resumed in 2005 when a terrace and walking path were constructed along the river.

Toro Nagashi is typically observed during Obon; a three-day Buddhist festival held in honor of one’s ancestors.

During Obon, families visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. It was believed that the spirits of the ancestors return to their family’s household altar during this time. Toro Nagashi takes place at the end of Obon. The ritual of releasing the lanterns symbolizes the return of the spirits to the afterlife. Outside of Obon, Toro Nagashi festivals are held in memoriam of tragic events. Now lantern festivals are held all over the country.

Obon is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Day of the Dead.

Traditionally celebrated during the seventh lunar month around the 15th day. Today is roughly August 15. Many festivals throughout Japan are held from August 13 to 16.

In Kyoto, Japan  you might catch a glimpse of bon-odori, a dance performed to welcome spirits into the world of the living.  To publically celebrate the end of Obon residents light giant bonfires in the hills surrounding the city.  The fires guide spirits back to the world of the dead.


Chuseok is celebrated in North and South Korea. Filled with dancing, games and food, Koreans also use this holiday to honor their ancestors.

Celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar calendar month the celebration coincides with the fall harvest so the living gives thanks to the dead for providing bountiful crops. During the day Koreans visit and clean the graves of their ancestors and at night they participate in folk games and dances. Compared to the American Thanksgiving Korean families celebrate Chuseok by sharing their harvest with others. The holiday is very food centric.

Gai Jatra

In Nepal the Gai Jatra, festival of the cows, is held each year in August or September. In Hinduism the cow is one of the most revered animals.  

Families who lost a relative in the previous year lead a cow, or a child dressed as a cow, down the street in a parade procession. Participants believe the cow will lead their deceased family member into the afterlife.

The festival’s origins can be traced to the 17th century. Nepal’s King Pratap Malla invited people to dress in costume and perform in front of the palace. The couple had lost their son and the King wished to make his wife happy. The queen enjoyed the celebration and the parade has continued ever since.

Today participants still dress in costume to celebrate the procession. A good place to visit to witness the festivities is Kathmandu.

Dia de los Muertos

In parts of Latin America, Spain, and Mexico, Dia de los Muertos- Day of the Dead, is celebrated.

Day of Dead is a colorful, fun, three day festival that starts on the evening of October 31 and ends November 2- All Souls’ Day.

Traditionally it was believed that at midnight on October 31, the souls of all deceased children come down from heaven and reunite with their families on November 1, and the souls of deceased adults reunite with their families on November 2.

Many families construct an altar in their homes for Dia de los Muertos. This altar honors deceased relatives. It is often decorated with candy, flowers, photographs, fresh water, and the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks along with papel picado a beautiful handcrafted Mexican paper. Artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, 
then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points. The art represents the fragility of life.

Día de los Muertos festivities often feature breads, candies and other foods in the shape of skulls and skeletons. The sweet bread is called pan de muerto. These treats are said to represent the souls of the deceased.

Copal incense, made from tree resin, purifies the area around the altar. Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find the way home.  

Marigolds are the main flowers you’ll find on altars and grave sites. Marigold petals are scattered from altar to grave site to guide wandering souls back to their place of rest.

Relatives clean and decorate the gravesites of departed family members. This includes cutting grass, clearing out weeds, repairing anything that is broken and giving it a fresh coat of paint. After everything is cleaned and repaired the grave is then decorated with flowers and wreaths. On All Souls’ Day relatives picnic at the gravesites, festivities sometimes include a mariachi band and tequila.

The tradition dates back 3,000 years to the Aztecs. According to Aztec mythology the world of the dead is called Mictlan. Mourning the dead was considered disrespectful. The dead were still considered to be members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit. During  Día de los Muertos the dead temporarily return to Earth.

In the 16th century the Spanish arrived in central Mexico and thought the tradition was sacrilegious. But it was not banished, instead the celebration evolved and incorporated elements of Christianity. Originally it was observed in the summer but as Christianity took over it was changed to coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

Calavera means skull and is a common symbol for Día de los Muertos. During  the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was also used to describe short poems, often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras became a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Now you’ll often find these witty poems in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs during Día de los Muertos.

In the early 20th century, a Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer named José Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. Posada dressed his creation in fancy French garb and called it Calavera Garbancera, intending it to be social commentary.  “Todos somos calaveras”, a quote commonly attributed to Posada, translates to “we are all skeletons.” Meaning that underneath everything, we are all the same.

In 1947 artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in a mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Rivera dressed Posada’s skeletal bust in a large feminine hat and named her Catrina, slang for the rich. Today Calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is a popular Day of the Dead symbol.

The original sugar skulls were a sugar art created by 17th-century Italian missionaries. The sugar skulls were pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors.

Popular foods and offerings for Day of the Dead are Pulqu a sweet fermented beverage made from the agave sap; Atole is a thin warm porridge made from corn flour, with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla added; and hot chocolate.

Day of the Dead symbolism has decoratively entered mainstream US Halloween culture. 

You can see sugar skull designs, costumes and décor right next to the traditional pumpkins, ghosts and vampires in the Halloween section of any store. 

Sadly most people just like the bright and colorful sugar skull designs without knowing the origins or meanings behind them.

To authentically experience the holiday, visit Mixquic, which is southwest of Mexico City’s center. Mixquic is famous for its Día de los Muertos celebrations. They have vendors, parades and vibrant celebrations. The cemetery comes alive with beautiful altars, and graves covered in flowers and other decorations.

Images from Pixabay.com

If you decide to visit any of the cities and festivals, please be respectful. They may seem exciting and fun but the festivals are for honoring the dead. They sacred to the culture. Respect that.

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