Halloween 2023: Spirited Celebrations
Spirited celebrations: as Halloween approaches, we explore how different cultures honour spooks, saints and spirits.
What does Halloween mean to you? If you’re in the UK or the US, chances are it will mean dressing up on 31st October and calling from house to house, trick or treating.
While it is a celebration that has become increasingly commercialised, the tradition of dressing up and knocking on doors isn’t too far removed from the festival’s Celtic pagan roots, which saw offerings of food and drink presented to spirits in a bid to protect future harvests.
Similar festivals to honour the dead can be found around the world, and nearly all take place during the northern hemisphere’s autumn months. The majority include food as part of the celebrations, and many include the use of paper, which is something we’re always interested in finding out more about at Love Paper. We explore some of the different festivals – and their use of paper – below, but we’ll begin with a closer look at Halloween and its origins.
Over recent years, Halloween – a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve – has seemingly grown in popularity in many countries around the world. Many of the activities associated with it, such as dressing up, carving pumpkins and trick or treating, are often assumed to be American, where Halloween is enthusiastically celebrated; it may come as a surprise, therefore, that many of these traditions are rooted in European folklore and tradition.
The origins of Halloween are found in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win), which was held around 1 November, marking the transition from autumn to winter. It was believed that at this time of year the boundary between this world and the next is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to enter this world and visit their old homes more easily. People would offer food and drink in a bid to appease the spirits and wear masks when they went outside in order to blend with wandering souls.
In the eighth century, Samhain and many of its traditions became absorbed by the Christian church into All Saints’ Day (1 November), to honour saints and martyrs, and All Souls’ Day (2 November), when the dead would be honoured.
While many might think of pumpkin carving as an American tradition, Jack o’ lanterns are actually Irish in origin. Legend has it that a man named Jack ‘was cursed to spend all of time roaming the earth with only a burning coal (inside a carved out turnip) to light the way, as his punishment for trying to trick the devil.’ . It is believed the tradition of pumpkin carving in America began with immigrants from the UK and Ireland who found pumpkins, which are native to North America, easier to carve than beets that traditionally had been used.
Trick or treating isn’t a new phenomenon either. It is believed to date back to medieval times in Celtic Britain when, just before All Souls’ Day, the poor would go from door to door asking for food in return for praying for the household’s dead relatives.
While paper might not be part of traditional Halloween celebrations, it is ideal for making sustainable and spooky decorations (you’ll find links to our Halloween paper crafts at the bottom of this article).
Obon is a traditional Buddhist festival celebrated in Japan and much of East Asia. This 500-year-old celebration takes place over three days each year, usually in August, to commemorate ancestors whose spirits are believed to return home to visit relatives during this time. Families prepare feasts, clean and decorate relatives’ graves, and hang paper lanterns outside to guide the spirits home. At the end of Obon, floating paper lanterns are released onto rivers, lakes and seas to guide the spirits back into their world.
El DÍa de los Muertos
Celebrated throughout Latin America, but perhaps most famously in Mexico, el DÍa de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is effectively a merging of an ancient Aztec festival celebrating the Goddess Mictecacihuatl (also known as Lady of the Dead), with Christian doctrine introduced by the Spanish in the sixteenth century.
It is typically celebrated across two days: All Saints’ Day on 1 November, and All Souls’ Day on 2 November. Whereas Halloween tends to be associated with fear, the Day of the Dead is all about celebrating life and the living while honouring dead ancestors. Homemade altars are decorated with lots of colourful items, including candles and photographs of the deceased, alongside offerings of food and drink to welcome spirits back. Flowers displays are an important component, their short lifespan symbolising the brevity of life.
Symbolising energy and joy are intricately cut, colourful paper banners, known as papel picado, which decorate houses and streets, while life-sized papier-mâché skeletons and skulls are elaborately decorated and displayed around towns and villages.
Celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar calendar month (usually September or October), Chuseok, which translates as autumn evening, is a Korean festival believed to date back 2,000 years. Marked in both North and South Korea, it is a festival to celebrate harvest and honour ancestors.
In South Korea, people return to their hometowns during Chuseok to visit family and pay respect to the spirits of their ancestors. Similar to the Obon festival and the Day of the Dead, on the morning of Chuseok, graves are visited and cleaned, and food, drink and crops are offered up to ancestors. Homes are adorned with colourful paper lanterns and neighbours come together to perform traditional dances under the full moon.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Celebrated in China and many other areas of East Asia, Hungry Ghost is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival that, similar to Halloween, combines fun and fear. It is based on the belief that on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month the gates of hell open, allowing malevolent spirits who didn’t receive a ritual ceremony after their death to wander the earth for 24 hours in search of food and comfort. It’s not all grim, however, as friendly ghosts also return. To honour the friendly spirits, joss paper and incense are burned, and when families sit down to eat a meal, empty seats are kept for the spirits to join them.
15 days after the festival, the hungry ghosts are guided back to hell by the release onto water of floating paper lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers.
Pitru Paksha is a Hindu festival of the dead. It falls in the second paksha (fortnight) of the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada (September). During this period, Hindus pay homage to their ancestors with food a central part of the celebration. While there are variations across India, the general belief is that, for three generations, the dead reside between heaven and earth with Yama, the God of the Dead. A son from the family of the deceased is required to perform a ritual to help his ancestors reach heaven; if successful, the son will be granted health, wealth, knowledge, longevity and moksha (salvation).
Check out some Halloween based paper-crafts for you and the whole family too! Whether you are planning a big Halloween bash, or just a quiet crafting night in, there is something for everyone.