It can be easy to forget that Halloween and the month of October wasn’t always about trick-or-treating and fancy dress. While the American version of Halloween dominates in Europe, different festivals are observed in other nations. If you’re living abroad in Mexico, Hong Kong or Ireland, for example, you might want to throw yourself in to one of these festivities…
The Mexican Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos to be exact, is fast becoming as widely known as Halloween itself. Although the two festivals share a similar basic aesthetic the Day of the Dead is not about frights and monsters. Instead, the two-day festivities are a celebration of family members who have passed on and the coming together of the living and the dead.
At midnight on the 31st of October the spirits of the deceased are believed to return to their homes, paying a visit to their living relatives. In order to welcome them the family creates an altar decked out with the spirit’s favourite food and drink alongside photos, flowers and fresh water to wash their hands. Then, two days later, the whole family returns the favour with a visit to the graves of their loved ones, picnicking and celebrating their memories.
Far from being sombre, the Dia de Los Muertos is a vibrant celebration of life and death. The colourful decorations and festive atmosphere make Mexican cities an exciting place to be at the turn of the season, safe from any of the tricks and frights of Halloween.
In contrast to Mexico’s two-day celebration of the dead, the Hungry Ghost Festival of Hong Kong lasts for the entirety of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. For the duration of the month restless spirits are said to roam the earth, with participants in the festival seeking to placate these invisible visitors for another year.
During Yu Lan – aka the Hungry Ghost Festival – many of the residents of Hong Kong aim to ‘feed’ the restless spirits with offerings of fake paper money, food, incense and entertainment. Throughout the city performers stage Chinese opera shows to both praise the deities and entertain any watching spirits, as well as living audiences.
Dating back more than a hundred years and officially recognised as a piece of China’s cultural heritage the festival offers an excellent showcase of traditional culture. While Yu Lan comes a little earlier than Halloween, generally falling between mid-August and mid-September, Hong Kong also puts on a more conventional western celebration on 31st October so a stay in the city potentially offers the best of both worlds.
Why not go back to the place where it all started? The roots of Halloween as we know it can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the farming year and the day that the boundaries between the normal world and the Otherworld are at their thinnest. With spirits such as fairies and banshees let loose, large bonfires are lit to keep them at bay while people disguise themselves in order to avoid the attention of any grudge-holding ghosts.
It was the Irish who first brought the idea of Halloween to the US, so it stands to reason that the Emerald Isle is one of the best places to get a taste of the festivities. Although these days Halloween is less about warding off spirits or dodging vengeful ghosts and more about the party atmosphere there are still plenty of frights to be had.
Derry in Northern Ireland is home to the world’s largest Halloween party, even beating US festivities in cities such as New York and New Orleans. With an array of music and costumes in its main carnival and a variety of haunted historic tours and ghost walks around the city there is something for everyone here. Mixing traditional with the modern, Irish Halloween celebrations honour the origins of the festival while also staging a great party.
Whether it’s the Halloween scares or the traditions of alternative festivals for the spirits that draws you in there are a wealth of interesting destinations to explore around the world. So if you want to brighten the darkening autumn nights with something a little different consider giving the trick-or-treating a miss and set off for somewhere new.
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