Honoring our Ancestors: The True Meaning of Halloween

October 29, 2014 | By Sonny Lawrence D. Alea
two women sitting on ground lighting candles

Halloween in Bangladesh

Halloween is celebrated and observed in various countries around the world on October 31st. While it has been heavily commercialized and popularly celebrated as a time to dawn costumes and collect candy, the origins of the holiday can be traced back to the British Celtic tradition known as Allhollowtide. It was believed that the souls of the departed were most active from October 31st to November 2nd. While it was also a time to remember friends and family that have passed, the Celtic tradition of Allhallowtide also involved practices that were thought to protect themselves from souls that could harm them. Since then, the tradition has been incorporated into Christian tradition and the three-day holiday evolved to honor and remember saints as well as departed souls.

Remembering the Dead around the World

Halloween is just one of many traditions that honor the dead. Death is, of course, a reality of all living beings and human cultures around the world typically ponder on this cycle of life through special observances and traditions. The majority of these traditions focus on remembering lost friends and family members and honoring them for the impact they made in the lives of the living.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a popular Mexican tradition that celebrates the souls of the dead on November 1st. It is believed that remembering the departed in sadness would upset the souls of loved ones, so instead of mourning, the departed are celebrated with food, drink, music, and dancing—making for a uniquely exuberant celebration of life and death. The dead are celebrated and remembered with Oferendas, which are individual altars and offerings of food.

Araw ng mga Patay, also translated to Day of the Dead and held on November 1st, is a similar tradition in the Philippines in which people take time to remember passed family and friends by visiting their graves and praying for their souls. After cleaning the tomb of debris and weeds, celebrations are often held around the grave site of the departed. The dead are included in the celebrations with food offerings and prayers. Many people spend entire days and nights near the burial place of their departed loved-ones until the celebrations are over.

Mahalaya Amavasya (Pitru Paksha), is a tradition in India that also celebrates the dead. The belief is held that the people of the present owe a great deal to people of the past for providing them with the knowledge and tools to continue the cycle of life. The living honor the departed with offerings of food as a way to thank them for their contributions and continue to celebrate through community festivals.

Chuseok or the Harvest Moon Festival, is a traditional holiday celebrated in South Korea on 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Though the holiday mainly focuses the season of good harvest, traditional practices include traveling back to ancestral hometowns and honoring family ancestors. In preparation for the celebrations, the graves of the departed are cleaned and decorated. A special breakfast and memorial service is also held to commemorate the dead and thank family ancestors for their guidance.

Honor Your Ancestors

Indigenous peoples and cultures all over the world honor their dead ancestors in one way or another. In fact, many Indigenous cultures invoke their ancestors daily through ritual. This is because without our ancestors, none of us would exist at all! Our ancestors also hold great wisdom—they each lived and learned before us, and we can call upon our ancestors to guide us with that wisdom.

These types of celebrations are an important part of various cultures, as it reminds us of our human connection to the natural cycle of life and death. In our daily life, it is easy to forget and even harder to accept that death is a natural part of life; scientific advances and efforts to contrast natural processes instill in us a fear of death.

This week, take time to remember the friends and family who have died. Think about how much they have contributed to your life and remind yourself of their role in your life and the community. Celebrate our ancestors who have paved the way for us to be present where we are today, and honor them by being a positive force in your communities.

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