Episode 38: Everyone Loves to Feed Ghosts: "Halloween" Around the World
It’s hard for me to call this all “Halloween” because I looked at the traditions of spirit worship and convening with ghosts for specific holidays and festivals around the world. I looked at the Celtic/Gaelic tradition of Sawin, and the East Asian and Southeast Asian Ghost Festivals, with a specific focus on Laos.
Halloween’s origins: If you didn’t know, then you’re about to. The modern American Halloween comes from Ireland. Samhain (pronounced Sawin) is a Gaelic Festival that marks the end of the Celtic year, so it’s pretty much Celtic New Year. The Celtic New Year ends on October 31st and begins on November 1st, because those marked the end of the harvest. The Celtic day began and ended at sunset (which is pretty cool), so that’s why Sawin begins on October 31st.
“It is first mentioned in the earliest Irish literature, from the 9th century, and is associated with many important events in Irish mythology. The early literature says Samhain was marked by great gatherings and feasts and was when the ancient burial mounds were open, which were seen as portals to the Otherworld. Some of the literature also associates Samhain with bonfires and sacrifices.”
Sawin is when cattle were brought down from summer pastures and slaughtered, and bonfires were lit for their cleansing properties. Sawin is a LIMINAL time period, where the boundaries between this world and the world of spirits and fairies were opened. During Sawin, spirits and fairies can come into our world and interact with us. People left food out as offerings to spirits in exchange for their livestock surviving the winter.
It is also said that dead relatives visit during Sawin, so tables were set to accommodate the dead guests.
People would dress up in spooky costumes and go house-to-house asking for food, called mumming or guising. This also involved groups of young men dressing up as spirits and threatening to do mischief if they weren’t given treats.
Jack’o’lantern origins, QUOTE: The "traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces". They were also set on windowsills. By those who made them, the lanterns were variously said to represent the spirits or supernatural beings, or were used to ward off evil spirits.
Merging with Church traditions, QUOTE: “In the 9th century the Western Church endorsed 1 November as the date of All Saints' Day, possibly due to the influence of Alcuin (an English scholar, clergyman, and poet), and 2 November later became All Souls' Day. It is believed that over time Samhain and All Saints'/All Souls' influenced each other and eventually syncretised into the modern Halloween. Most American Halloween traditions were inherited from Irish and Scottish immigrants. Folklorists have used the name 'Samhain' to refer to Gaelic 'Halloween' customs up until the 19th century.”
Sawin is now celebrated throughout the neopagan world. Wiccans also celebrate a version of Sawin, drawing on the tradition of communication with spirits due to the spirit realm being SO CLOSE on Sawin.
Most of the festivities of the American Halloween celebration are rooted in Sawin traditions. Everything that I described above has corollaries in how we enjoy Halloween. Americans, however, have taken a maximalist approach in celebrating this formerly religious holiday, and it has become synonymous with killing and gore more than communication with the spirit and fairy world.
But hey, Trick or Treating is mumming or guising. Jack O’ Lanterns are those hollowed out gourds. The general spookiness is attributed to the thinning of the layer between our world and the spirit realm.
The Irish now eat a bread called barmbrack for halloween. I’m going to make that shit! Barmbrack is a sweet yeast bread with raisins and sultanas. Traditionally, items were added to a loaf with specific fortunes attached to them.
Here’s more on that from our friends at wikipedia: ”The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the brack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence), a ring, and a bean. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; the ring, would be wed within the year; and the bean, would have a future without money. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolize taken a religious vocation, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day.”
There was so much non-food shit in this bread! WHat a dangerous thing to eat.
Part II: Ghost Festivals in East and Southeast Asia
It’s wonderful that there are so many similarities between the Ghost Festivals in East and Southeast Asia and Samhain. It makes you realize that the liminality between the dead and the living was a much larger factor in ancient life, and these invisible barriers allowed people to connect with other planes of experience that our relatively sanitized culture avoids. Ghost Festivals in East and Southeast Asia are not intended to be scary, as Halloween and, to an extent, Sawin, are. Rather, these festivals display reverence and compassion for the dead. The season for various Ghost Festivals occurs between August and early November, with numerous festivals and holidays meant to commemorate and communicate with the dead, convene with spirits and dead relatives, and give offerings to the dead.
Ghost Festivals of various forms are practiced throughout East and Southeast Asia. In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm.[which?] Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (or Tomb Sweeping Day, in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
-The Ghost Festival is held during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community.
NOTE THE SIMILARITIES to SAMHAIN-During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow.
-Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn hell bank notes and other forms of joss paper. Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife, considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world. People burn paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts.
-Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people bring samples of food and place them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto seas to symbolically guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.
RITUALS in BUDDHISM and TAOISM:
Buddhists and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve ghosts from suffering, many of them holding ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets). Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts. Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts.
Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float water lanterns and set them outside their houses. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat. The lanterns are used to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.
There are related festivals of convening with dead ancestors and other spirits throughout East and Southeast Asia, including Bon in Japan and Sat Thai in Thailand, but I’ll focus on Laos because I attended this festival!
In LAOS: Boun Haw Khao Padap Din
In Laos, a festival known as Boun Haw khao padap din usually occurs in August/September each year and goes on for two weeks. During this period, it is believed that hungry ghosts are freed from hell and enter the world of the living. Haw Khao Padap din pretty much means to lay packets of rice on the floor.
“Boun Haw Khao Padap Din is an annual festival during which the people of Laos “feed” spirits with home-made parcels of food, reflecting their love, respect and gratitude for their deceased ancestors and guardians.”
“It is a day of the waning moon, which is believed to be the time when the spirits are released and are free to roam at will. It is also recognised as the right time to feed them.”
“People believe that the controllers of hell release the spirits on this day and this happens only once a year. When they are released, the spirits travel to Earth and search for the offerings of food that their relatives have prepared and left for them.
Most people wake up at 3 am or even earlier, because they believe that deceased relatives who have not returned to Earth to be born again are detained in a “spirit hell” and suffering. They also believe that some are wandering the Earth and are very hungry because they haven’t eaten for a long time, and that they need help from relatives, friends or someone else.
Some people like to feed spirits that have no families or friends, or those whose relatives didn’t transfer merit to them, or to other hungry evil spirits. They also bestow wishes on the spirits in the hope that they can free themselves of their suffering.”
The Special TREAT of Boun Khao Kadap Din is Khao Nom Nap, which is a delicious coconut and sticky rice “dumpling” steamed in a small banana leaf. I ate so many of these during this time, and they are available in night markets in any Lao village or city. If I were a ghost returning from world of the dead, I think that some Khao Nom Nap would ease my tortured spirit.
A second festival known as Boun khao salak occurs directly after the conclusion of Boun khay padab din. During this period, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts.
Lao Lantern Festival (November) Lai Huea Fai, also referred to as Candlelight Festival or Festival of Light, is the festival that takes place to celebrate Boun Awk Phansa (the end of Buddhist Lent). Like other festivals in Laos, it blends together Animist and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that the ceremony originated as a way to pay homage to the river deities and their spirits.
How did I celebrate as a kid?
We ALWAYS dressed up and went trick or treating
Usually at my aunt’s house because their neighborhood was better and had more families / my aunt would have like Halloween related foods and treats…it was kind of like a small Halloween party but just with family
Oddly enough, there was only one Halloween I spent with my friends…I think I was about 11.
Dressed up until I was about 14, then my little cousins were born so after that I didn’t dress up but I still went out every Halloween with them until I was 18.
Pretty typical American Halloween
Halloween in Italy
You can probably guess that there technically is not a Halloween celebration in Italy, which I think makes sense since Halloween is mostly celebrated in the U.S. and UK
Many of the big cities do have celebrations now, but it’s mostly for tourists, not really for the locals.
However, they do publicly celebrate the holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Like everything else Halloween related, it has its roots in pagan celebrations of life and death.
All Saints Day or FESTA DI OGNISSANTI doesn't have too grand of a tradition associated with it. It is both a Catholic feast day, as you know, and a bank holiday, which means everyone gets the day off, so that’s dope.
Depending on local tradition, many Italians attend a special midday Mass after a colorful procession down the city center. The rest of the day is dedicated to – of course – a great feast with friends and family.
All Souls Day or Il giorno dei Morti is the Italian day of the dead, so there are a lot of traditions associated with it.
One thing that was pretty widespread around the country but has kind of gone out of the celebration is that people would prepare il piatto dei morti or the dead’s dish, usually containing chestnuts and milk.
Mostly on this day, cemeteries become alive with visitors bearing flowers and candles to remember their deceased loved ones. It is VERY similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, just that they use different flowers, obviously, and they don’t have the altar tradition that has become so well known.
As you know, Italy has not been a unified country for very long. Until 1871, the region we now call Italy was a bunch of disconnected states. So, most regions have their own traditions.
Many of the traditions are similar in that after their trips to the cemetery, families gather for another feast. And each region has its own traditional food associated with the celebration. Basically every region has a tradition of making dolci dei morti (sweets of the dead) which are left as offerings to the dead. In very rural areas around southern Italy, some families also continue to lay the table with a second dinner, so their ancestors will feel compelled to return.
Since all of the regions have their own specific ways of celebrating, I couldn’t find EVERYTHING from everywhere, but I did get some specifics about a few regions.
In Puglia, the very southern part of Italy, the heel of the boot, some towns celebrate the tradition called Fucacoste e Cocce Priatorje (which means Bonfire and heads of Purgatory).
For this tradition, bonfires are spread around town, people carve pumpkins to resemble human heads, and long tables are prepared outside houses to share food.
In Calabria, which is also in the very southern part of Italy except it’s the toe of the boot, they actually do pumpkin carving. In the villages of Serra San Bruno, children carve pumpkins to reproduce a “coccalu di muortu“, which is a skull. They walk around town asking “Mi lu pagati lu coccalu?” – Will you pay my skull?”
In Sicily, we’re still in the south folks! They have kind of weird tradition that feels vague Christmas-y.
If kids are well behaved all year, they’re given cannistro, which is a basket full of toys and sweets. Sounds pretty benign, but actually, they think these baskets are from their dead ancestors, so that’s wild.
Apparently, this tradition is so popular that there are little pop-up shops called “Fiera dei Morti” put up just for this special occasion, where parents can go and buy cannistro baskets for their children.
On the island of Sardinia, their holiday has various names. In the north of the island it is called “Su Mortu Mortu” and in the south, “Is Animeddas“.
according to the old tradition, people prepare a dinner of handmade pasta, a glass of wine, and a full water jug on a table without cutlery. Also, each table has an oil lamp to let the souls eat in comfort. It is said that houses without a table set up this way can be haunted by angry (and hungry) spirits!
Trick or treat is replaced with the old saying seus benius po is animeddas, which means we came for the little souls! There are typical sweets called Is pabassinas, beautiful and decorated raisin desserts.
In Tuscany, OK, now we are in the north…a recurrent tradition happens every year. “Bèn d’i morti” is a chance to remember people who died through an act of charity. People donate food to shelter houses.
Specific towns also have particular traditions, like in the town of Castelpoggio, every year inhabitants organize lunches where everybody is welcome. Children receive sfilze, which are necklaces made of boiled chestnuts and apples.
In Lombardy, there is also the tradition to leave a pitcher full of water for the thirsty souls. In addition, there are typical sweets called Fave dei Morti – beans of the dead, they are macaroon-like almond cookies.
Halloween in Haiti
I asked Stacey about Halloween in Haiti and obviously, they don’t really do that shit.
People might celebrate Fete Gede, which is the Haitian Day of the Dead, but it’s widely related to voodou, so it’s not like a nation-wide holiday that is celebrated in the same way it is in Mexico or Italy.
Stacey did tell me one very funny thing that happened every year on the weekend of Halloween.
At Stacey’s private school that was staffed and run by nuns, they had these Friday night movie nights where the kids would put on movies for other kids and they would charge admission. It was a way for the classes, particularly the senior class, to raise money for their events at the school.
This was a weekly thing but on Halloween weekend, these kids somehow got away with showing pretty graphic and gory horror movies even though it was an all ages event. Stacey remembers them showing Blade and the 2005 version of The Amityville Horror specifically.
She says she has no idea how they got these movies past the people in charge of the school because usually, they played shit like 13 Going on 30.
I don’t know…I just thought this was kind of funny because it shows an attempt at like “celebrating” Halloween but without really going all in.