All Hallows Eve, the one night of the year when daemons, ghosties and probably even the monsters under your bed are free to roam the land of the living. And to keep ourselves safe until these unruly spirits are banished back into the realm of the dead, the breathing among us have been keeping the things that go bump in the night at bay in a number of creative and festive ways. Turning what was once an ancient Celtic ritual, that marked the end of the life-giving harvest season and the earth's entrance into a celestial, as well as metaphorical darker period, into a fervour of ghoulish black and garish orange. But while apple-bobbing, trick or treating and pumpkin carving are all traditions recognised by those of us in the west, across the globe there are many customs that take place during the unsettled autumn season most of us have never heard of. So we've unearthed some of the more unique and unusual for you to pour over like a witch with a grimoire.
1) Nepal - Gai Jatra is observed mainly in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, and dates back thousands of years to when the god of death, Yamaraj, was both worshiped and feared in this part of the world. These days however, the rites performed are done so to commemorate those who have died over the last year within the community, and include a cow led procession. As the most revered animal to Hindus, cows symbolise the holy aspect of this convention, and if there are none available then a village boy will be dressed up as one instead.
2) Fed Gede, Haiti - Also known as the Festival of the Ancestors, Fed Gede is a Voodoo celebration in which the Loa (or Haitian spirits) are honoured with offerings of food and drink, in particular the Gedes. Avaricious in nature they often want to hang around on earth for one last drink, bite to eat or smoke, but it is the job of the mambo (priest) to make sure they don't out stay their welcome. Sometimes however they can possess humans, though it is not the kind of possession that you or I might imagine, helped along by flashbacks of The Exorcist; they tend to emphasise the party atmosphere, as revellers dance in the streets drinking delicious rum cocktails, spiked with chilies.
3) The Hungry Ghost Festival is commemorated for an entire month by Buddhists in China and Hong Kong. According to their calendar, the seventh month of the year is when spirits can most easily walk between worlds, with the zenith coming on the 15th day, the halfway point that marks an open gateway for the deceased to move freely between heaven, earth and hell. In Taoist tradition, hungry ghosts are those who suffered a violent or tragic death, and they are placated throughout this period with elaborate meals, the burning of incense and the releasing of paper lanterns.
4) Puchum Ben - Another religious custom in which celebrants remember their ancestors, Puchum Ben occurs in the Kingdom of Cambodia over a fifteen-day period, usually sometime in October (dates vary according to the Khymer calendar) when spectres, or preta, are supposed to be particularly active. To dissuade them from wreaking too much havoc, priests chant through the night and relatives prepare favourite dishes that monks pass on via a 'merit' system. Many believe however that they can transfer food straight to the dead, by throwing rice balls high up into the air.
5) The Halloween we're most familiar with today is a pretty Americanised affair, but way before our cousins across the ponds were even thinking about dusting off their sweet-collecting bags, here in Britain there were still some strange goings on…going on. For example, did you know that if you sneak a peak of your own shadow, reflected in the moonlight on Halloween night you're pretty much guaranteeing your own death, or that if you peel an apple and throw it over your shoulder, it will spell out the initials of your future husband or wife? And in Ireland (the birthplace of Halloween), the custom of costumes first came about in the 16th century, and they were terrifying. Homemade protection from the souls of the dead, people would go house to house collecting offerings on their behalf to stave off unwanted attention from whatever was lurking in the shadows.
We hope that all these tales of death and ghosts won't give you nightmares, but maybe this October 31st you'll give a second thought to that Jack O' Lantern sitting on your doorstep, that actually represents a character known as Stingy Jack who made a dangerous deal with the devil, or think twice about answering the door to those cute children, who may just not be who they say they are…happy Halloween!