Celebrating Death: From Día de los Muertos to the Hungry Ghost Festival

Halloween today is a cute, innocent celebration. It’s an excuse to dress up in a costume, eat too much candy, and maybe seek some exciting but ultimately safe thrills in the local haunted house. The roots of our autumn holiday tradition are a bit less anodyne: They can be traced back to centuries-old festivals that honor death, remember deceased loved ones, and face the inevitable limits of the human condition. Death is mocked in some cultures, revered in others, and feared in many; the mystery surrounding the great unknown drives the human compulsion to acknowledge, ward off, or embrace the natural inevitability of the cycle of life.

Today, these festivals have morphed into something different than they once were, thanks to the dual engines of religious conversion and economic globalization. But mortality and the afterlife still remain central themes that lay just beneath our fall celebrations.

Mexico and Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) originated in Mexico but is celebrated throughout Latin America and many cities in the United States with large Latino/Latina populations. The holiday originated with indigenous Aztec and Mayan peoples, who believed that death was not to be feared but celebrated. Traditionally, the holiday was a month-long celebration, but, after the Spanish conquest of Latin America and introduction of Catholicism, the celebration was shortened to just two days (November 1–2) in congruence with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

For Día de los Muertos, families construct altars to honor their deceased ancestors with ofrendas (or offerings) of food, marigolds, and items their loved ones enjoyed while they lived. They clean gravesites and wait for their ancestors to return to Earth. One of the most famous symbols of the holiday is La Calavera Catrina — an elegant, skeletal woman in death. La Catrina, created by printmaker José Guadalupe Posada in 1910, symbolizes the disparity between the upper and lower classes; the notion that everyone, even the rich, will succumb to death; and the satirical views of death and mortality in Mexican culture.

[Related: Mexico’s grand dame of the Dead, the story behind La Catrina]

China and the Hungry Ghost Festival

China has a few celebrations that honor the dead, but with important distinctions: For the Qingming Festival, the living visit the dead; for the Hungry Ghost Festival, the dead visit the living.

During the Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day), families pay respect to their deceased ancestors. They sweep their tombstones, give offerings of food and paper money, and pray for good fortune. The Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, is part of the month-long celebration of Ghost Month. It’s said that, not only do benign ghosts of ancestors return to roam freely during this time, but the gates of hell are also opened and its souls are released to seek food, libation, and entertainment.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is steeped in both Taoist and Buddhist traditions. For Taoists, the festival celebrates the birthday of Lord Qingxu, the celestial official of Earth. In Buddhism, its origins date back to the tale of Mu-lien, who rescued his mother — who became a hungry ghost because of transgressions she made against the gods whilst alive — from hell by offering food and gifts to monks and monasteries.

People burn incense and Joss paper, and offer sacrificial food to placate the dead for fear of retribution. If offerings aren’t made, the dead can become mischievous.

Modernity has not slowed down activities of Ghost Month. In fact, during the entire month, people are still encouraged to avoid traveling, moving into a new home, getting married, opening a new business, or even swimming lest a spirit sneak up and drown you.

[Related: At the Hungry Ghost Festival, Rituals Appease the Dead]

United States and Halloween

The origins of Halloween date back to the mass immigration of Irish people during the 19th century. Irish immigrants brought their traditions stemming from the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) to the U.S., which eventually became widely celebrated and commercialized into Halloween’s current iteration.

Traditionally, Samhain was a pagan holiday that marked the end of the pastoral cycle, and was also referred to as the Celtic New Year. (Just as important as the end of one cycle was the beginning of another.)

The Celts believed that the veil between the world of the living and dead weakened at this time, allowing the spirits of the dead and feisty “otherly” beings to roam freely and mingle with the living. To honor the dead who passed during the year before, the Celts burned large bonfires, left out food as a sacrifice, and wore masks to confuse the dead to keep them away from the living. The large bonfires were eventually scaled back and replaced with carved out gourds and turnips.

Though Halloween has diverged greatly from its pastoral origins, remnants still exist with activities such as wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, and bobbing for apples. One thing that it is missing, however, is death. Halloween could be a means to explore death as a shared experience, such as with the Day of the Dead, but it’s not. Contemporary Americans celebrate through consumption rituals and death denial instead. Although it could be argued that we do give death its due around this time of the year — with skeleton decoration and horror movies — according to journalist Oliver Burkeman, Halloween could stand to be infused with a little more. “Collective annual Halloween rituals more closely resembling the Day of the Dead would make a bigger difference,” states Burkeman. “There’s no need to spurn the pumpkin-carving or the zombie costumes. But wouldn’t multigenerational graveyard parties provide a meaningful complement to that?”  

What are your favorite memories of fall festivals? Let us know on our Facebook page. As a language company, CLI is invested in celebrating cultures across the world.

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