A display of Hallowe'en pumpkins, Burlington, Ontario, Canada (photo by Luis Bastardo)
We often think of Hallowe'en (meaning Hallow or Holy Evening) as a typically North American holiday, but in fact, its roots go back thousands of years to the Celtic harvest holiday of Samhain, a celebration honoring seasonal cycles, and has been influenced by celebrations such as the over 3,000 year old Mexican holiday, El Día de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, when Mexicans honor their departed loved ones and celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth. Although many of us in the modern world view death as an ending, these cultures viewed death as just another stage of the life cycle. Life was a dream, death was the reality. Until you undertand the motivations, death-related holidays seem a little morbid, but they are actually undertaken with a spirit (pardon the pun) of optimism, community, acceptance and happiness. Death is an inevitable part of life and necessary to make way for new life: why not acknowledge it, embrace it and honor those who have gone before us?
An array of colorful sugar skulls, prepared for El Dia de los Muertos, Mexico (Courtesy of http://www.mexicansugarskull.com/)
In North America, children look forward to Hallowe'en all year, for the costumes, the trick or treating and the tasty foods that include pumpkin pie and cookies, caramel apples, warm apple cider, toasted marshmallows and candy corn. The Mexican holiday is also great fun, filled with light, color, delicious foods and a delightful sense of creepiness. Sweets are fashioned in the shapes of sugar skulls and tombstones and chocolate coffins, and families prepare picnics of the favorite foods of their departed relatives to take to the cemeteries, including Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) and beverages such as alcoholic mescal and pulque and the sweet, non-alcoholic corn-based atole. The foods that we think of as typical of Hallowe'en, chocolate and pumpkin, are both thought to have originated in Mexico or South America. Tombs and grave sites are tidied and decorated with the food and drink offerings, as well as glowing candles, flowers, incense, photos of the dead, tiny statues and ribbons in preparation for the festivities.
A plate of pastel colored sweets offered for the Japanese celebration of the dead, known as Obon (Courtesy of Wiki Commons/Sakurai Midori)
In European countries such as Austria, All Saints or All Souls Day is celebrated in much the same way, visiting cemeteries with candles and flowers and gifts of candies and small toys for the children. In China, the holiday that celebrates the dead is known as Teng Chieh; families bury models of boats at grave sites and leave offerings of fruit and lanterns. Ireland is believed to be the birthplace of the modern Hallowe'en celebration, where the traditional food eaten is barnbrack, a type of fruitcake, although the American version of trick or treating probably originated in England, where children would go door to door carrying carved out beets and turnips, asking for money. In Japan, one of the most beautiful festivals of the dead is known as Obon or Matsuri; the streets are filled with glowing red lanterns, which are then set into small model boats and set afloat down rivers. Almost every culture celebrates a version of The Day of the Dead, honoring and remembering loved ones and reminding the living to deeply appreciate their own lovely and fleeting gift of life.
The traditional Irish bread, Barnbrack, prepared for Hallowe'en (Courtesy of http://www.irishblogs.ie/)