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7 Day of the Dead Festivals from around the World

Honouring the spirits of our ancestors is a practice ingrained in many of the world’s cultures.

Celebrations or commemorations for the dead are as widespread as they are ancient, and they form part of a societal coping mechanism for dealing with an unpleasant but unavoidable consequence of life — death.

Find out more about how seven different cultures around the world celebrate their day of the dead festivals.

1.     Hungry Ghost

Day of the Dead
The earliest recorded celebration of the festival was in the seventh century

Celebrated mainly by Chinese, Hungry Ghost Month this year is from 11 August to 9 September. The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the 25th.

Also known as the Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节)  in Chinese, it is a time when the souls of the dead are free to explore the mortal plane.

During this period roaming spirits are appeased with offerings of money, incense and food, to stop them getting into mischief. Amusing them also costs big money with temporary outdoor theatres  built for shows from Chinese opera to modern Mandopop song and light extravaganzas.

You might see ‘empty’ seats and think no one is interested. Wrong. Those seats are where the spirits sit.

2.     Halloween

Day of the Dead
Trick or treating dates back to a custom from the middle ages called ‘guising’

Falling on 31 October every year, Halloween’s origins go back millennia to pagan times in western Europe. Known as Samhain in Irish, it was said to be the night when the veil between this world and the other world was thinnest.

People wore masks and costumes as disguises to ward off harmful spirits, and lit bonfires to mark the passing of the lighter days of summer into the darker days of winter.

When Christianity arrived many pagan holidays were incorporated into the liturgical calendar. All Souls Day marks the eve of All Saints/All Hallows Day on 1 November.

Nowadays this heavily commercialised festival focuses on the American custom of Trick or Treat and children wear costumes to get candy rather than ward against spirits.

3.     Undas

Day of the Dead
Some families spend the night in the graveyard during Undas

Also known as Todos los Santos or All Saints Days, this Philippine holiday honours the dead by cleaning, painting and decorating the graves of their deceased loved ones in the days leading up to the festival on 1 November.

Despite its timing coinciding with Halloween, the celebrations differ from the West. In a tradition that might be too spooky for some, Philippine families go en masse to cemeteries to feast by the graves of their ancestors.

So many people are on the move on the same day that special police operations are prepared in advance to cope with the crowds and traffic jams.

4.     El Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead originated in Mexico but is celebrated all over Latin America

Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico with two days of festivities for people to remember and honour their deceased relatives and friends.

Despite the ghoulish makeup and attire that characterises the festival, the Day of the Dead is about having fun and enjoying life.

Originating from an indigenous, pre-Spanish Mexican festival, it has been blended in with Halloween to begin on 31 October ending on 2 November.

In 2008 Day of the Dead was given Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO.

5.     Obon

Day of the Dead
Obon has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years

Japan’s Obon Festival is similar to the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival.

Obon marks the return of the dead to visit their relatives in this world, observed mostly from the thirteenth to the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month but with regional variations.

Many family members return to their hometown to take part in rituals, building home altars, visiting graves and offering food to the spirits of their ancestors.

A Buddhist event, Obon is one of Japan’s three most important holidays. It is the time that Obon dances are performed, lanterns strung up to guide the spirits home, making it one of the most beautiful festivals in the Japanese calendar.

6.     Gai Jatra

Day of the Dead
Cows are sacred in Hinduism and are thought to ease the journey of spirits to heaven

This festival of Gai Jatra – festival of the cows – falls on 27 August this year and is mainly celebrated in Kathmandu, Nepal.

One story linked to the festival dates back to the 17th century, when a bereaved queen lost her ability to smile. Her son ordered a boisterous fun parade by all those who had lost a relative during the previous year.

Sporting bright, zany costumes, the participants lead an equally brightly dressed cow in a parade into which they incorporate comedy to incite laughter, perhaps as an act of catharsis for dealing with loss.

7.     Chuseok

Day of the Dead
Chuseok is much older than the separation of Korea and is celebrated by both North and South Korea

Seen as the Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok is celebrated in the middle of the eighth lunar month, this year from 23 to 25 September.

Family members gather at home to pay homage to their ancestors and be thankful for a good harvest.

After paying their respects, the family sits down to a sumptuous feast with special foods such as sweet rice dumplings filled with sesame seed, red bean or similar.

Traditionally Chuseok observances meant a visit to the graves of ancestors, a custom still carried out by many in Korea.

A modern-day spin on this bountiful festival is the giving of gifts to family and friends.

Humanity Transcendent

There is something special about concepts which transcend cultural barriers and show us that we have so much in common. Just as it is with these examples of Day of the Dead celebrations and rituals.

With our hectic modern lifestyles it is comforting to see that old traditions still continue, and that we share a commonality as humans that is reflected in these customs.

Ultimately it is through embracing the past while striving towards advancement that we can forge a bright, balanced future for ourselves.

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