Festivals of the Dead Around the World

In the United States, Halloween is mostly about candy, but elsewhere in the world celebrations honoring the departed have a spiritual meaning

Throwing money into the air during the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival. (© Ivan Damanik/NurPhoto/Corbis)
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In the United States, Halloween is big business: The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans spent over 6 billion dollars on candy, costumes and ghoulish decor during the 2013 holiday. But what has become a commercial feast for candy producers and pumpkin farmers actually has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that the night before Samhain, spirits from the other world came and destroyed vegetation with their breath, leaving the land barren for winter. People would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease the spirits, and wear masks when they left the house to blend in with them. Eventually, the pagan tradition was co-opted by the Christian church in the eighth century, and Samhain became All Saint's Day—or All Hallows. The night before became Hallows Eve (later Halloween for short).

Halloween retained its spiritual and macabre nature through many centuries, thanks to traditions like souling, where the poor would beg for pastries on November 2 (All Souls Day) in exchange for prayers for deceased relatives. In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants in America began to revive these traditions—with more of an emphasis on trick-or-treating than religious introspection—and by 2013, more than 150 million consumers participated in the modern American iteration of Halloween.

Around the world, many cultures have festivals intended to honor the dead. Like Samhain, some of them are linked to the change of seasons and the harvest, while others mirror the influence of Christianity, spread by missionaries throughout the world. If you're interested in checking out holidays for the dead—without fun-sized candy bars and jack-o'-lanterns—consider taking a trip to one of these seven festivals. But note that while many feature jubilant celebrations replete with dancing and music, they're meant first and foremost as a way to honor dead relatives and ancestors, and should be approached with respect.

Obon Festival

(Japanese Buddhist worshippers place one thousand floating paper lanterns in a river in Ichinomiya city. Credit: © EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN/epa/Corbis)

A traditional Buddhist festival, Obon commemorates lost ancestors, whose spirits are believed to come back during Obon to visit relatives. Sometimes called the Japanese Day of the Dead, Obon was traditionally celebrated during the seventh lunar month, around the 15th day. Today that roughly translates to August 15, and most festivals throughout Japan are held from August 13 to 16 (though in some areas of Tokoya, Obon is celebrated around July 15).

Since Obon commemorates the spirits of ancestors, many people return to their hometowns, and spend the holiday surrounded by family and friends. In Kyoto residents publicly mark the end of Obon by lighting giant bonfires in the hills surrounding the city; the fires are thought to guide spirits back to the world of the dead.

If you want to experience Obon, consider making a trip to Kyoto to see the fires and witness the bon-odori, a traditional dance meant to welcome spirits of the dead into the world of the living (catch a glimpse of these dances at public parks or temples). People also honor the deceased through toro nagashi, or floating lanterns, which are sent down rivers to the ocean. 

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