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Oct 15, 2014 by British Blog
Many cultures have their own ways of remembering the dead. In much of the western world, the 31st October has a special significance. Whether it is the start of a week's festivities (as in Sweden), or the first day of an extended festival to honour the departed (as in Spain and Latin America), or good old Halloween, as we know it in the UK, much of the underlying meaning is shared.
Other cultures have similar festivals, but sometimes at other times of the year. Read on to find out how Britain came to celebrate Halloween in the way that we do - and what other cultures do.
While Halloween is probably celebrated in a more flamboyant way in North America than in Britain and Ireland, in fact the traditions of 'trick or treat' and dressing up in outlandish costumes are British traditions that seem to have been sent back home in recent years. In fact, despite their modern love of the festival, Americans do not seem to have marked Halloween at all until the mass Irish immigration following the potato famine of the nineteenth century.
England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have long-standing Halloween traditions of giving visitors food and/or money in return for prayers and songs. In England, this tradition was interrupted by the Reformation, and particularly by the influence of puritanism. In contrast, no such fate seems to have affected 'guising', which is a Scottish/Irish tradition of visiting houses, dressed in bizarre costumes, carrying lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips and being rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.
Historians believe that the British/Irish Halloween is derived from the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to scare bad spirits away.
In Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain itself and most of Latin America, the Day of the Dead is actually several days long, spanning 31st October – 2nd November. A remarkably cheerful festival, given its subject matter - this festival honours the dead, who are believed to return home at this time. Festivities include parties and public parades, although it is also traditional to spend at least part of it tending and tidying the graves of deceased relatives.
Non-western societies also have special times at which dead people and/or spirits are particularly honoured. In Korea, the festival of Chusok is celebrated each August. Families visit the graves of their ancestors and leave gifts of food to thank them.
In Hong Kong, the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is approximately equivalent to Halloween. During this time some people set light to pictures of food or money, believing that this will reach and please the ghosts. Hungry Ghosts' Festival is also celebrated in Singapore.
While many people complain that the recent influx (recent at least in parts of England) of dressing up and 'trick or treating' is a North American import, in fact it seems that the Americans are merely sending our cultural traditions back to us. Furthermore, we - and they - are not alone. Festivals to honour the dead are of very long standing and, it seems, continue to fulfil a need in modern cultures - even if they have become commercialised.