Allhallowtide, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos: A trio of ‘Halloween’

Dia de los Muertos dancers

Dressed up for a Dia de los Muertos festival. Photo by Ted McGrath, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, OCTOBER 31-WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Deeply rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids. So grab your best ghoulish mask and get the (Halloween) party started!

HALLOWEEN: A CHRISTIAN ORIGIN; A CULTURAL PHENOMENON

Allhallowtide, the triduum of Halloween, recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God. In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture. Recent estimates are that the very diverse American business of “haunted attractions” brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the commercial elements of Halloween have spread from North America to Europe, South America, Australia, Japan and parts of East Asia.

SAMHAIN: GUISING FOR A TRICK

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. During this time of year, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS: DAY OF THE DEAD

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

ALL THINGS HALLOWEEN:
DIY COSTUMES, DÉCOR, PARTIES & MORE

What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

Equinox and Mabon (Imbolc): Welcome, autumn!

autumn, mabon equinox

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 and THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: Take a deep breath of crisp, autumn air and savor the warm spices of the season, as (respectively) Pagans celebrate Mabon and people around the Northern Hemisphere mark the autumnal equinox. For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is a type of Thanksgiving, recognizing the gifts of harvest; it is a time to seek blessings for the approaching winter months. Equinox, a celestial event, occurs twice per year and is so named because the length of day and night are (almost exactly) equal.

Did you know? The equinox phenomenon can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis, such as Saturn.

MABON: FROM CIDERS AND BREADS TO PINE CONES AND GOURDS

pumpkin spice latte autumn

Try a DIY, healthy version of a pumpkin spice latte! Feel Good Foodie has the recipe, at left. Photo by Maryam Samadi, courtesy of Pexels

“Everything autumn” sums up the fare, symbols and activities of Mabon, as Pagans and Wiccans offer cider, wines and warming herbs and spices to gods and goddesses. Druids call this time Mea’n Fo’mhair, while Wiccans celebrate the Second Harvest Festival, decorating altars with pine cones, gourds, corn, apples and other autumn elements.

As a time and season of mysteries, Wiccans recognize the aging of the goddess and visit ancestors’ graves, decorating them with leaves, acorns and other elements of fall. Tables are covered in feasts of breads, root vegetables and apple cider, as scents of cinnamon and nutmeg fill the air. Families gather, and preparations are made for the coming winter months.

Make it yourself! Whip up a homemade, healthy version of a pumpkin spice latte, with a recipe courtesy of Feel Good Foodie.

Looking for an autumn activity? Take a walk through the woods, while enjoying the bold colors of autumn; alternatively, make a horn of plenty that will grace the home through the season. Kids can create corn husk dolls (courtesy of Martha Stewart), and homes can smell like fall with the addition of scented pine cones (get a DIY here, from HGTV).

Autumn-ready home: For tips on fall decorating as well as helpful tips for the season, check out articles from HGTV. For style tips and ideas from the UK, check out this article from Country Living.

Holika Dahan, Hola Mohalla and Holi: Hindus and Sikhs embrace spring, tradition

Holi group of people

Young people gathered at a Holi celebration. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MARCH 17 and FRIDAY, MARCH 18: Colored powders cloud the air, and frivolous shouts ring through the streets: It must be springtime—it must be Holi!

In India today and in Indian nations around the globe, the exhilarating Hindu festival of Holi is in full swing. Rightly called the “Festival of Colours,” Holi calls all participants to forget about castes and manners for the day so that young and old, rich and poor, men and women can all gather to welcome the joy of spring. Today, Holi is celebrated across the globe.

HOLIKA DAHAN (AND BONFIRES)

Holi unofficially begins on Holi eve, in a ritual of burning bonfires to commemorate the legend of Prahlad. According to legend, Prahad miraculously escaped a fire when the Demoness Holika carried him in; Hindus believe Prahlad emerged with not even a scratch, due to his devotion to the deity Vishnu. The scores of Holika bonfires serve as reminder of the victory of good over evil and, in some regions, effigies of the demoness are burnt in the fires.

Songs are sung in high pitch around the bonfire, accompanied by traditional dances. After a frivolous night, celebrants wake early the next morning for a day of carefree fun.

HOLI: A COLORFUL CELEBRATION

While Holika is brought to mind on the eve of Holi, Krishna is worshipped during the festival of Holi: The divine love of Radha for Krishna makes Holi a festival of love. Various legends explain the link between the child Krishna and Holi’s many colors, and winter’s neutrality makes way for the colorful essence of spring during this beloved holiday.

KING OF HOLI: In Barsana, in India, courting takes on a new twist as men sing provocative songs to women and the women literally beat the men away with sticks (don’t worry—the men carry shields to protect themselves). In Western India, pots of buttermilk are hung high above the streets in symbolism of the pranks of Lord Krishna, and crowds of boys compete to build human pyramids and reach the top pot. The boy who reaches the pot is crowned King of Holi.

FOR SIKHS: HOLA MOHALLA

While Hindus are throwing colored powders and rejoicing in spring, Sikhs turn to a different festival: Hola Mohalla, literally translated into “mock fight.” In 1699 CE, the 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa, a group of men who had shown immense bravery and selflessness. These saint-soldiers pledged loyalty to the poor and oppressed, vowing to defend wherever injustice was present. Two years later, Guru Gobind Singh instituted a day of mock battles and poetry contests, to demonstrate the skills and values of the Khalsa and to inspire other Sikhs. Today, these events have evolved into Hola Mohalla, a week-long festival replete with music, military processions and kirtans. Food is voluntarily prepared and large groups of Sikhs eat in communion. The largest annual Hola Mohalla festival is held at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, although many gurdwaras worldwide hold their own versions of the events at Anandpur.

The Nihangs, bearing the symbol of the Khalsa, often display their skills at Hola Mohalla and are distinct for their blue robes, large turbans, swords, all-steel bracelets and uncut hair. During Hola Mohalla, Nihangs display a mastery of horsemanship, war-like sports and use of arms. Guru Gobind Singh instructed Sikhs to obey the highest ethical standards and to always be prepared to fight tyranny.

St. Patrick’s Day: Wear green, embrace Irish culture and honor a fourth-century saint

St. Patrick, stained glass

St. Patrick. Photo by James Walsh, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MARCH 17: As pandemic restrictions continue to lift and more cities return to the parades and festivals that often signify St. Patrick’s Day, revelers around the world remember the legendary Saint Patrick of Ireland—while embracing the Irish culture through food, music, costuming and more.

WHO WAS THE REAL ST. PATRICK?

The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, the young man who would become known as St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

Surprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval.

PATRICK’S ‘BREASTPLATE’

St. Pat’s Day may be a secular bash in many communities, but it also has deep religious roots that matter to millions. The purest forms of religious expression, each year, occur—naturally—in Ireland. One of the most popular posts in the decade-long history of ReadTheSpirit is a collection of three versions of the famous prayer known as The Breastplate:

Versions 1 and 2: Here is St. Patrick’s Breastplate in English prose and in 19th Century lines of a hymn.
Version 3:
We also have St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Gaelic.

You probably remember some of the most famous lines from St. Patrick, such as:
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me

And also:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

But, there is so much more to this classic prayer!

corned beef for St. Patrick's Day

Corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Larry Hoffman, courtesy of Flickr

A CHRISTIAN FEAST DAY—AND AN EPIC FESTIVAL

St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

In 1996, the Republic of Ireland began the St. Patrick’s Festival to highlight everything Irish to other world citizens; today, the festival lasts five days, attracts more than 1 million visitors and requires 18 months of planning. (Check out the St. Patrick’s Festival website for more.)

RECIPES, CRAFT IDEAS & MORE

Got dreams of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, too):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from Parenting.com.

New Year’s Eve / Watch Night: Welcome, 2022!

New Year's Eve theme photo

Photo by Alexas_Fotos, courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 31: Champagne toasts, fireworks and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest kick off the start of the Gregorian year worldwide, as revelers usher in the year 2022. In several countries, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day means family gatherings, elaborate meals and plenty of parties. From the United States to Mexico, Ireland and Japan, time-honored traditions meet the latest global trends on New Year’s Eve. In New York, celebrities and party-goers watch the famed “ball drop” in Times Square, counting the seconds as the 12,000-pound crystal ball lowers to ground level.

NEWS: The New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City will be “scaled back” this year, according to Mayor Bill De Blasio; however, festivities will still take place. (Read more from Fox Business.) Worldwide, many major cities are canceling activities that typically draw large crowds, and experts are instead suggesting smaller celebrations at home.

New Year's Eve hat

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

NEW YEAR’S EVE: FROM MEXICO TO RUSSIA TO NEW YORK

For many, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day traditions span centuries. In Mexico, it is tradition to eat one grape with each chime of the clock’s bell at midnight, making a wish with each grape. A special sweetbread is baked for the holiday, and in homes across the country, red, yellow and green decorations are hung, in hopes of luck in the New Year in life, love, work and wealth. In Korea, ancestors are paid tribute at the New Year, and in Canada, the United States and the UK, Polar Bear Plunges have steadily been gaining popularity as a New Year’s Day custom. In Russia, some blini is in order for a proper New Year’s party. Tradition traces the thin pancakes back to ancient Slavs, and today, Russian blini may be stuffed with cheese or served in a variety of other ways. (Find a recipe and more at WallStreetJournal.com.)

From Times Square: Since 1907, the famous New York City “ball drop” has marked New Year’s Eve for millions in Times Square and for billions more through televised broadcasting of the event. Notable televised events began in 1956, with Guy Lombardo and his band broadcasting from the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During the tenure of Guy Lombardo, young Dick Clark began to broadcast on ABC, and following Lombardo’s death in 1977, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve soon became the hit of the nation. Dick Clark hosted the show for 33 years, and in 2005, Ryan Seacrest hosted his first show, which is now called Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.

WATCH NIGHT AND MARY: A CHRISTIAN NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

In some Christian churches, New Year’s Eve is a night of quiet reflection, prayer and thanksgiving. There’s a long-standing Methodist tradition called “Watch Night,” a custom started by Methodism’s founder John Wesley, and some Protestant groups follow similar traditions. In Greece and in Orthodox Christian communities, New Year’s is spent singing Kalanda—carols—and eating the vasilopita, or St. Basil’s, cake. On January 1, the octave of Christmas culminates in the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

SHOGATSU: JAPANESE BUDDHIST SPECTACULAR

In Japan, New Year’s preparations begin weeks in advance, with pressed rice cakes prepared in a variety of flavors and often cooked with broth for a traditional New Year’s soup. At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. After midnight, many families head to a local temple to pray, and then feast together afterward. The following morning, New Year’s greetings are exchanged and delicacies like sashimi and sushi are consumed.

AND MORE

  • Drink recipes are at Forbes.com and Delish. Looking for a mocktail? Delicious combinations are available from HGTV.

Diwali (Deepavali): Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and more celebrate festival of lights

Diwali lights diya

Girls light diya lamps for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 4: Today begins Diwali, the ancient Hindu festival of lights. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike; as awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world.

In recent (non-pandemic) years, more than 1 billion people across the globe celebrate Diwali. This year, in addition to restrictions being in place, many festivals will be seeing some changes. (For example, Leicester’s massive Diwali festival will, this year, host three screens of pre-recorded programming in place of a stage, and a “Fire Garden” will be set up in place of fireworks. Read more from the BBC.)

(Please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali may vary by country and region. This festival is also called Deepavali, or Dipavali.)

A Diwali diya lamp. Photo by Abhinaba Basu, courtesy of Flickr

DIWALI PREPARATIONS: A MULTI-DAY CELEBRATION

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance. In a shopping extravaganza, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi tonight means a good year ahead. And, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN: PURE AND INFINITE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple and more.

Interested in coloring pages, crafts, printables and a how-to video of the Jai Ho dance? Find it all and more at Activity Village.

Obon, Ullambana: Ancient dances, visitations mark traditional Japanese festival

Photograph by Jim Kamole, shared via Wikimedia Commons.

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Obon dance woman crowd

Although many festivities for Obon will be virtual this year, celebrations typically include vibrant colors and dancing for everyone. Photo by –Mark–, courtesy of Flickr

MID-JULY through MID-AUGUST: A festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes and a celebration of Japanese culture commences, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

2021 update: Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, many dance festivals will be held virtually this year. The New York Buddhist Church, for example, will offer a range of “celebratory and remembrance demonstrations” online, July 9-1 (read more here). From Hawaii, the Kaua’i Soto Zen bon dance will be virtual again, this year (learn more here); similarly, dancer-members of the Wahiawa Hongwanji are preparing for a 2021 virtual bon dance (watch a slideshow of dance rehearsals, here).

Meanwhile, experts are expressing concern over the lack of vaccinated Japanese residents—according to reports, although Japan’s vaccine coverage has been increasing in recent weeks, the country’s number of vaccinated residents is still the lowest among the world’s most developed nations—as both the Olympics and Obon season approach.

ANCESTORS, BUDDHISM AND HOUSEHOLD ALTARS

Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors, Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

STORYTELLING & A DISCIPLE OF BUDDHA

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

Lit lanterns on water, nighttime

Obon lanterns. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A taste of Obon: Looking for recipes to celebrate Japanese culture? The Spruce Eats offers a variety of Japanese cuisine suggestions, suitable for Obon. 

The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance.

When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi).

OBON AROUND THE WORLD

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate (though primarily virtually, this year) through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.