Fall is here and I could not be more excited! Like many people, fall is my favorite time of year. The leaves are changing, the air is cool and crisp, the smell of apple, pumpkin and cinnamon are all over. Halloween and Thanksgiving are my two absolutely favorite holidays! Plus my birthday sits snugly in between, so you can see why October and November are two of my favorite months! Halloween is such a fun, colorful time of the year. We get to dress up, get sick on candy and enjoy the thrill of the scare. October 31st is celebrated as the day when the veil between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead is thin. If you’re interested in hearing how Halloween has evolved, be sure to tune into Ninja Summer’s video presentation on The History of Halloween during out IGGPPC Halloween Party!
The idea of appeasing the dead is not restricted to just American culture and a holiday in October. Cultures all over the world celebrate with their own Festival of the Dead at different times of the year. Here were some of my favorites!
OBon: The Festival of the Dead (Please Feed the Hungry Ghost Day), Japan
Celebrated: Late July/Early August
The name Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana which is Sanskrit for “hanging upside down” and also implies great suffering. The Japanese feel that it’s their responsibility to help alleviate the suffering of the dead. The origins of Obon stem from Buddhism and dates back as far as 606 A.D. A disciple of Buddha by the name of Maha Maudgalyayana used his supernatural powers to check in with his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Buddha instructed Maha to make offerings to the monks on the 15th day of the 7th month and by doing so, Maha’s mother was free from her suffering. Maha reflected on his mother’s selflessness and the sacrifices she made for him, and relieved that she was no longer suffering, he danced. The dance became the Bon Odori (The Dance of Joy), which is a time of reflection, appreciation and remembrance of ancestors and their sacrifices.
During the week of Obon, bright red lanterns are strung up everywhere. The significance of the lanterns is to help guide the spirits home from the spirit world and then back again. A wooden tower is erected and a taiko drummer plays from the top of the tower. Each town erects their own tower wherever Obon is going to be celebrated. Men and women dressed in yukata (summer cotton kimonos) will dance around the tower to the music. Graves are decorated with flowers and burning incenses and food such as fruits and vegetables are left out for the spirits to consume. At the end of the festival, everything is dismantled and everyone goes back to their daily lives, with confidence that their ancestors have safely returned to the spirit world.
Gai Jatra: Festival of Cows, Nepal
Considered one of the most popular festivals in Nepal, the ancient origins of Gai Jatra come from the people who worshipped Yamaraj, the God of Death. However, once Nepal entered its medieval period and the rule of Malla Kings, Gai Jatra became a more spirited and colorful affair. The story goes that King Pratap Malla and his Queen lost their young son. The Queen was devastated and no matter how he tried, Pratap Malla could not cheer her up. So he offered a challenge, if anyone could make the Queen smile, they would be greatly rewarded. Pratap Malla requested a procession of cows along with people dressed in fun costumes to perform humorous acts. Finally the Queen smiled, the procession offered the Queen great comfort because she realized other people in the city had also lost loved ones. So the procession became a form of comfort to people, as death is a part of life and should not be feared.
In the Hindu religion, cows are regarded as the most sacred of domesticated animals. They are believe to aid the spirits of the departed on their journey to heaven. During the festival, any family who has lost someone over the past year is required to participate. The families lead a cow through the streets and if a cow is unavailable a young boy will dress up as a cow. Once the procession is over, everyone dresses up in colorful costumes and masks. The rest of the afternoon is spent with music, jokes, dancing and singing. The festivities carry on well into the night, once again remind people that death is just another part of life.
Famadihana: Festival of Turning the Bones, Madagascar
Celebrated: June – September
Food seems to be a pretty common theme among festivals that celebrate the dead. Many cultures leave out food for those who have passed and then celebrate with music and dancing. As a food lover, I’m 100% on board with this. I love the idea that after I’m dead, I can still chow down like Slimer from Ghostbusters. But this last festival was so unique and different from many of the others, I could not resist sharing it.
Celebrating your ancestors is a big deal and Madagascar is so unique in their celebration. They call it Famadihana or “turning of the bones” which takes place about every 7 years. Family crypts are opened and the remains of dead ancestors are removed. The Malagasy carefully wrap the remains in fresh, clean cloth and then they dance with the corpses. Dance. With. The. Corpses. This is joyful celebration with live music and the distribution of fresh meat to guests. Malagasy elders tell the children of their families and the importance of the dead they are dancing with. Extended families are brought together to celebrate the spirit of kinship and the festival is show your family how much you love them.
The people of Madagascar believe that people are made from the bodies their ancestors, so they are held in the highest regard. Until the body is completely decomposed, they remain in this realm and can communicate with the living. So until they are gone forever the Malagasy continue to show them love and affection on Famadihana. Interestingly enough, this tradition cannot be traced beyond the 17th century and thus not considered an ancient practice of Madagascar. This celebration is a rather costly affair and many of the poor cannot afford crypts for their ancestors. So the families will save up for years until they can build one and then hold their own Famadihana celebration. Traditionally, if a family can afford a famadihana celebration but do not hold one, it is considered a serious insult.
I had so much fun with this post and I hope that you had fun reading it. And however you celebrate, be smart and stay safe! And if you’re unsure about any piece of candy, specifically chocolate, send it to me and I will inspect it for you!
Around the World is a feature about global geekery, exploring other cultures, and much more. To submit a post idea, simply leave a comment!