A house across the street from me has a miniature warlock looking creature standing out front, their porch is covered in cobwebs. Another home has Chihuahua sized spiders crawling across the garage. And someone else has put a giant inflatable black cat with gleaming yellow eyes in their yard.
All of this would seem quite strange were it not for the fact that Halloween is just around the corner. A day when children are allowed to step out of their skin, put on a costume, often a ghoulish one, and troll the streets in small packs, looking for candy. It’s a weird event, but it all seems normal to us now. How is this odd festival celebrated in other places? Digital Dying examines some of the stranger Halloween-esque festivities from across history and around the globe..
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Day of the Skulls, Bolivia – Ancient Andean tradition says people have seven souls and they all go to different places when someone dies. One soul stays with the skull and has the power to visit the living in dreams in order to heal and protect them. For this reason, many Bolivians keep skulls, or natitas, in their homes, often storing them in glass cases or on makeshift altars. During the Day of the Skulls festival, typically held on November 9th, skulls are dressed up with military hats or traditional Andean wool caps and crowned in red roses and hydrangeas. Colorful pieces of wool are put in the eye sockets and offerings are given to the skulls, such as cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol. The skulls are taken to a special chapel for mass. Many people bring the same skull year after year.
Interestingly, the skulls are not those of family members but usually belong to strangers. Some are taken from cemetery plots of those without any family, others are purchased at specialty shops or from medical students. “I was scared of them at first, but now I realize I was scared because I wasn’t taking care of them,” one Bolivian woman said of her skulls, in a 2005 AP article. “Now I keep them in my room with me. I love them a lot, and they have helped our family when we’ve had problems.”
Day of the Dead, Mexico – It’s a national holiday in Mexico, banks and offices are closed and everyone goes to the cemetery to honor friends and family members that have died. They bring gifts for the dead, like their favorite foods and beverages and decorate graves with sugar skulls, marigolds and photographs. Toys are laid atop the graves of dead children and bottles of tequila on those of the adults. Many people hold picnics among the tombs. They eat candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and atole, a hot drink made of corn flour, cinnamon, cane sugar and chocolate or fruit. Some people believe during the celebration the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the food offerings. People can eat it afterwards but it lacks nutritional value. In Mexican towns like Mixquic and Janitzio, people lay down blankets and pillows and sleep beside the graves. It’s all in an effort to encourage dead souls to visit the living and hear their prayers and remembrances. The tradition dates back 2-3,000 years, to an ancient Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess named Mictecacihuatl.
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Samhain, Ancient Scotland – The Celtic people were farmers and herders and November 1st was the most important day of the year, it signified the end of summer and the harvest season and the beginning of the cold dark winter. Cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and other livestock secured. On the night before the new season began, October 31st, the boundary between the living world and the dead world became blurred, allowing souls that had died during the previous year to travel to the netherworld. To guide them on their journey and keep them away from the living giant bonfires were lit. Animals were sacrificed in the fires to appease the dead, and crops were burnt. The Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins. But it wasn’t just the past years’ dead that were lurking about, a portal was opened on that night that allowed all manner of underworld creatures to return to earth, including ghosts, fairies and demons. Some damaged crops or haunted homes. Others imparted supernatural powers upon priests, allowing them to make predictions about the future. The festival of Halloween that we know today has its roots in Samhain. Happy trick-or-treating!