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Unveiling the Spirit of Halloween: Cultures From Around the World

Unveiling the Spirit of Halloween: Cultures From Around the World

With Halloween quickly approaching, we are all ready to face the occasion with our customary annual gusto and excitement. Among other things, mothers will be busy preparing their kids’ Halloween costumes, people will decorate their houses, carve pumpkins and make jack o lanterns, children will be ready to trick or treat and families will wear bizarre costumes and distribute candy.  Now only a remnant of the old Celtic tradition of Samhain, Halloween has become a widespread and beloved holiday globally and grown to become an industry valued at $8 billion in the United States.

Yet, at the same time, this rather westernized and ‘white washed’ trope of Halloween, forever propagated by pop culture, media and mass consumerism may shadow the true meaning of the occasion for many other countries around the world and the culturally diverse nature of the holiday.

Here are some rather obscure and lesser known facts about Halloween traditions in different parts of the world:

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PCHUM BEN

This particular festival is celebrated in Cambodia and marks the 15th day of the 10th Khmer month and falls around the first week of October depending on the year. The festival shares commonalities with similar traditions in Sri Lanka and the Ghost Festival celebrated in Taiwan. It is a rather solemn occasion for most Cambodians as it is a day of commemoration for the deceased. Cambodians pay homage to ancestors from 7 generations. People believe that the gates of hell are open on this day and it is necessary to ward off evil spirits by offering food. Merit transference ceremonies, a common Buddhist practice, are a very important aspect of Pchum Ben celebrations in Cambodia, where the peoples’ good deeds are transferred to dead relatives.

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DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

Recognized on 2nd November in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico and the south- western parts of the United States. It identifies the ninth month of the Mexica solar calendar and was presided by the Mexican Lady and Lord of Death.  It celebrates the transition from life to death and the allure and fear associated with death.

Private altars are constructed for deceased loved ones and are adorned with flowers, pictures, candles and food. Families usually go to visit the graves of dead family members on this day. The parades and processions have become a common site and attracts a lot of tourist attention during that time of year. The street festival has become popularised in many movies, most recently seen in the latest James Bond film, Spectre. People wear vibrantly coloured and decorated costumes and wear masks and face paint on the streets. The festival is now widely recognized by UNESCO as being a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity owing to its accurate representation of the living heritage of Mexico.

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GAI JATRA

When translated to English, this phrase means ‘Festival of Cows.’ It is celebrated in Nepal to commemorate dead family members and loved ones. In ancient times, people used to honour the Indian God of Death, Yamraj on this day. According to other historic origins, King Pratap Malla of Nepal declared that this day would honour the dead upon seeing his wife devastated because of their son’s untimely death. Moreover, despite recognising a sad occasion, Gai Jutra serves to also glorify and celebrate the lives of the departed. Cows are marched on to the streets and food hampers are distributed. The celebrations carried out on this day are symbolic as cows are considered sacred by Hindus and could supposedly bring deceased relatives good fortune in heaven. Parades and processions are carried out in various parts of the city of Kathmandu including suburbs and inner urban areas.

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PITRU PAKSHA

According to Indian tradition, the God of Death, Yama, is known to hold the soul hostage and take it to purgatory or hell where it meets 3 generations of deceased relatives. The soul is allowed to come to Earth and unite with its descendants. A number of rituals are conducted, especially a fire ritual known as Shraddha which is performed during one of the lunar days, preferably on the day of the death anniversary of the deceased. The ritual is rather strict and follows very specific religious guidelines that are rather hidebound in nature. Many Hindus even regard the occasion to be inauspicious in many ways. During the festival, people prepare a wide array of dishes like Kheer, an Indian sweet with sugar and milk, rice, lentils, spring beans and pumpkins. Recitations and hymns from the Hindu holy book, Bhagvad Githa are carried out as well.

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AWURU ODO FESTIVAL

All the way in Africa, Awuru Odo Festival originated from Nigeria and is celebrated in the month of April. It is an integral part of Igbo culture, one of Nigeria’s oldest tribes. The Igbo people consider the Odo are spirits of the dead and believe that alusi is predominant in all living things on earth and is presided over by the one true supreme God, Chukwu. People often wear masks and costumes to mimic these spirits as a sign of respect and gratitude. As deeply superstitious and religious people, the Igbos celebrate by conducting cleansing rituals, sacrifices, parades and offering food to the deceased. The Odo parade is the crowning jewel of the festival and people play different Odo characters through various plays, coupled with singing and dancing.

Given the diverse and multi- ethnic world we live in, it is important to understand interpretations of different holidays and traditions around the world so that we become more tolerant and sensitive to other cultures and religions. We will then be able to better connect, coexist and interact with one another when we realise and mutually accept and appreciate the ways in which we are similar and also at the same time, different.

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