Skip to Main Content

October Isn't Just Pumpkins

In this guide, learn about Halloween, Day of the Dead, Samhain and other celebrations where people remember those who have died.

Halloween and Similar Celebrations

On October 31st, people in the United States celebrate Halloween.  The word 'Halloween' comes from All Hallows Eve which is the day before All Saints Day (a Christian holy day).  Halloween started in Europe and was brought to North America in the 19th century where it became very popular and evolved from its original form.  According to tradition, spirits of the dead were able to come back to life to harm people and crops.  People tried to appease the spirits, and these practices led to many of our current traditions.  For example, people used to wear costumes to scare away the harmful spirits.

People still wear scary costumes.  However, now, they also dress up like children's characters, super heroes, celebrities, and more.  Kids go trick-or-treating in their costumes.  During trick-or-treating, they go from house to house and ask for treats by saying "Trick or treat!".  Instead of going from house to house, some families take children to Trick or Trunk  (where children go from decorated vehicle to decorated vehicle to get treats) or Fall Festivals.  Other activities that reflect the traditional past of Halloween include watching horror movies and visiting haunted houses.

The celebration in the United States has spread to other countries throughout the world as a fun and commercial event. Today many people celebrate Halloween with costumes and candy, without knowing the history of the traditions. In addition, some organizations including UNICEF use the same concept of trick-or-treat to ask for money for fund raising to be used to help people in need around world.


File:Halloween-2870607 1920.jpg - Wikimedia Commons


Information taken from the American English website.

Dia de los muertos (or Day of the Dead) is not a "Mexican Halloween."   Both Halloween and Dia de los muertos originated with similar afterlife beliefs but are very different celebrations today.  Day of the Dead is a celebratory holiday where people remember family members who have died.  Brightly colored skeletons and skulls can be seen everywhere and are often seen smiling as a friendly nod to death, or even moking death.  But, Mexicans are not the only ones celebrating this holiday.  Many religious communites participate in All Souls Day (or All Saints Day) during the same time as Day of the Dead.  

Day of the Dead is a two day holiday.  Families create ofrendas (offerings) on altars that are decorated with bright flowers, photos of the departed, and the favorite food and drink of the one being honored.  Families believe that the offerings encourage visits from the departed who join in the celebrations.

You can read more about this holiday and see photos at Day of the Dead website.


File:Día de Muertos (Day of death).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The origins of Halloween start in the Celtic Festival of Samhain (pronounces Sow-an).  Still celebrated today from sunset October 31st to sunset November 1st, it was an agricultural festival where the forces of darkness and decay were said to spill out from the sidh, the ancient mounds or barrows in the countryside.  Celtic people would build a large bonfire to please the gods and help to regenerate the crops.  

In the Middle Ages, fire fesitvals started appearing more often and bonfires were lit nearer to farms to protect families from fairies and witches.  Carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns began to appear.  Later Irish switched to using pumpkins.

As the years went by, Samhain became merged with Halloween.  But in the 1980's, a revival of the pagan form of Samhain started with the growing popularity of Wicca.  The Wiccan celebration takes on many forms, from the traditional fires to celebrations that incorporate Halloween to activities that honor nature or ancestors.

More information about Samhain can be found at History Channel website.





Kukeri is probably the best costume party in the world. It’s a centuries-old Thracian tradition that takes place across Bulgaria over the last weekend of January. People from villages and towns across the country come together for the largest celebration, which is held in a Pernik town square, just outside the capital city Sofia, to parade their monster costumes. Each village has a distinct monster costume style, but all are intended to chase evil spirits away. The costumes include masks, hair, bells, and wooden structures that truly are impressive. The parades go last for two whole days to ensure every group of monsters has their chance to scare away the bad spirits.



In early November, people across Poland travel to cemeteries to visit the graves of their family members (Dzień Zaduszny is like the equivalent of All Souls' Day for Catholics in the country). The holiday is celebrated with candles, flowers, and an offering of prayers for departed relatives. On the second day, people attend a requiem mass for the souls of the dead.



All Saints' Day, November 1, is a national holiday in Italy. Better known as Ognissanti, the festivities usually begin a couple of days before, when people begin leaving fresh flowers—generally chrysanthemums—on the graves of departed loved ones, as well as complete strangers, turning the country's cemeteries into a beautiful display of colors. Italians also pay tribute to the departed by putting a red candle in the window at sunset, and set a place at the table for those spirits they hope will pay a visit.



Radonitsa, meaning “Day of Rejoicing” in Russian, is a festival that remembers the dearly departed on the second Tuesday of Pascha (Easter). On this eastern “All Souls Day,” people visit graveyards to offer prayers for the departed, then eat a meal at the graves of their loved ones. Radonitsa has been known to be an occasion of heavy drinking and partying, both in the cemetery and elsewhere, to celebrate the life of the dead. The festival also notes the beginning of “marriage season,” as weddings cannot be held in Lent according to Orthodox Catholic tradition.


Another incarnation of the hungry ghost festival, Tết Trung Nguyên in Vietnam, is a time for the forgiveness and freedom of condemned souls (ghosts) who are released from hell. The ghosts of ancestors are “fed” and pleased with offerings of food. People cook flower porridge and present offerings including popcorn, paper money, and paper clothes to assist the ghosts and help them to transcend limbo or hell, as well as accumulate wealth. This is believed to bring merit for self and family. The festival has its origins in a Buddhist legend about the story of Bodhisattva Muc Kien Lien saving his mother from hungry ghosts.


The Philippines

Pangangaluluwa is a tradition in the Philippines in which children go door to door, often in costumes, where they sing and ask for prayers for those stuck in purgatory. While the rituals have increasingly been supplanted by trick-or-treating over the years, some towns are working to revive Pangangaluluwa as a way of keeping the tradition alive, and as a local fundraiser.


Hong Kong

On the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, which is around mid-August to mid-September, the people of Hong Kong celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. In several parts of East Asia, people believe that spirits get restless around this time of year and begin to roam the world. The festival is a way to “feed” these spirits both the food and money they need for the afterlife. It’s part of a larger month-long celebration that also features burning paper and food offerings.


For 16 days during the second Paksha of the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada, many people in India celebrate Pitru Paksha. In the Hindu religion, it is believed that when a person dies, Yama—the Hindu god of death—takes his or her soul to purgatory, where they'll find their last three generations of a family. During Pitru Paksha, the souls are briefly allowed to return to Earth and be with their families.



From the end of September to the middle of October, Buddhist families gather together to celebrate Pchum Ben, a religious holiday to celebrate the dead. People give foods like sweet sticky rice and beans wrapped in banana leaves, and visit temples to offer up baskets of flowers as a way to pay respect to their deceased ancestors. It’s also a time for people to celebrate the elderly.



Hari Raya Galungan is celebrated among the Hindu communities of Bali and some other islands of Indonesia. It honors the ancestors who return to visit their former homes during this two-week long festival. It sounds a bit like Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, but in essence it is more like India’s Diwali, as it similarly celebrates the triumph of dharma (good) over adharma (evil). During the celebrations, the islands are decorated with colorful religious votives and offerings of foods, paper money, and flowers are made to deities. The festival occurs every 210 days, calculated according to the Balinese pawukon calendar.





While Voodoo in the western world is often dismissed or seen as something extinct, nearly 80 percent of Benin still believe in Voodoo and consider it very powerful and something that must be respected. Almost 10,000 people visit the Ouidah Voodoo festival every year in January, to witness the plays, ceremonies and performances. The delegations of the different voodoo communities come to the beach, where the festival is held, and pay tribute to the "pope" of the Voodoo and the most powerful wizards, where animal sacrifices take place, a common practice in Voodoo. Other common sights are Zangbetos, whose outfits resemble haystacks, they are considered to be the night watchmen and charged with the maintenance of law and order.


The Awuru Odo Festival marks the return of dearly departed friends and family members back to the living. Lasting up to six months, the holiday is celebrated with feasts, music, and masks before the dead return to the spirit world. Although the Odo Festival is an important ritual, it happens once every two years, when it is believed the spirits will return to Earth.



The Fête Des Masques is celebrated every year during the months of April and May by the Dogon people in Mali. It takes place as a memorial to the villagers’ dead and to celebrate the harvest. Masks are the most important symbol of Dogon culture they are believed to protect against vengeance and help pass on knowledge through the generations. Dancers are performed to recount the story of the origin of the Dogon people and although these are now often performed for tourists they still remain sacred and important to the villagers. Each dancer, representing a different spirit performs, leaping and waving his stick and looking for evil spirits which might prevent the deceased from going to paradise. There are other Fête Des Masques celebrated in the neighbouring countries of Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.



Kakamotobi also known simply as the Fancy Dress Festival, is an annual masquerade festival held from Christmas to New Year's Day by the people of Winneba. It began almost 100 years ago when Dutch and British colonisers introduced putting on masks and wearing fanciful attires to socialize in the coastal towns of Ghana. The people of Winneba adopted and owned this practice by setting up various masquerade troupes, to create elaborate characters and perform with marching bands for their townsfolk. To mark Ghana's independence, the institution was formalised by Ghana's first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and now occurs yearly. Although costumes vary greatly many of the more traditional outfits serve as satire and to mock the colonisers.


Burkino Faso

The Festival International des Masques et des Arts also known as FESTIMA is a biennial festival that celebrates traditional African masks, it was founded in 1996 to help preserve traditional cultural practices in modern times. The event draws people from all over west Africa, who come to showcase their heritage from over 50 communities, some of which are seen in this list. The events you can witness here are dances, performances, live music and you can also learn about traditional culture from seminars, storytelling and activities for children. It is estimated that 100,000 people visit the festival each year with 2,000 of those being international.