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Fall Holidays Around the Globe

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Large Day of the Dead altar
A rooftop Dia De Los Muertos altar.

We all sense the change in the air: Nights getting cooler, perhaps the scent of a fireplace burning. Noticing the leaves changing color on the trees. There are so many iconic images of Fall- Pumpkins, turkeys, little children dressed up in costumes getting candy. But did you know there are Fall festivals that celebrate the themes of the season all over the world, that have been with us from ancient times? Read on to find out more.

Three women dressed as Mexican Catrinas
Traditional style Catrina costumes for Dia De Los Muertos.

The images and styles of Dia De Los Muertos, otherwise known as Day of the Dead, have become popular all across North America. This holiday originates in Mexico, and its roots stretch back before the time of Christianity on the South American continent. Typically celebrated around November 1st-2nd, It's a time when families pay their respects to the departed, yet it's also is a celebration of life, and remembering the lives of those lost, especially the things that friends and family loved about them. Personal and community altars, known as ofrendas, are constructed, and feature photos of the deceased, their favorite foods or items, Aztec marigolds, and colorful decorations. There's parades and parties, and families might visit a graveyard to have a picnic with their departed relatives.

The Catrina costume is a somewhat more modern addition, a combination of an old cartoon image from artist and printmaker, Jose' Guadalupe Posada (with a nod to muralist, Diego Rivera), with the decorations from sugar skulls. It's an irreverent style that fits well with the exuberance of the holiday.

Chuseok table with various fruits, candles and food.
A table laden with offerings for Chuseok.

Chuseok is a Korean harvest festival that occurs in mid- Autumn, when the "Harvest Moon" hangs large in the sky, and is one of the biggest holidays of the year. In South Korea it's a three day holiday, and is sometimes known as "Korean Thanksgiving." It, too, has been celebrated since olden times, and there is a tradition of gathering together with family, exchanging gifts, and setting out a table with a cornucopia of goodies to express gratitude for a good season. It's also traditional to make little stuffed rice cakes, known as Songpyeon.

Woman lighting candles for a Diwali rangoli decoration.
Placing candles during an outdoor Diwali celebration.

The celebration of Diwali is a festival of lights, signifying the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and "The blessings of freedom, victory and enlightenment" (Farmers Almanac). It's primarily celebrated across India, where lights are seen both out in the community as well as in most homes, but has spread to the U.S.A. and other countries where people might practice Hinduism or related beliefs. Diwali occurs around the end of October, and has a number of legends to go with it, as well as favorite deities that can be invited to one's home, such as Ganesha (the "opener of ways") and Lakshmi (abundance, generosity and prosperity). One way that space is refreshed and deities are invoked is by creating colorful rangoli, decorations made on the ground or floor of colored powders, grains, flower petals, and more. People visit with family and enjoy delicious food during Diwali, and light firecrackers in the street.

Large Chinese temple decorated with lanterns
Mid-Autumn Festival at Thean Hou Temple, China

The Mid-Autumn Festival, or Mooncake Festival, is a lunar holiday that's over 3,000 years old. It's celebrated in September in China, as well as a number of other Asian countries. It's almost as important as Chinese New Year. People give thanks for the abundance of the season, especially giving thanks to the moon for its role, as well as encouraging the light to return to help with plentiful growth in the coming year. Families get together for reunions, wishing one another happiness and good health. Lanterns are hung, and it's a time to enjoy mooncakes, a sort of shortbread pastry filled with a variety of sweet or savory flavors.

Sculpture of a woman from earth, mosaics, flowers and vines.
An earthen statue in celebration of Lughnasa.

Lughnasa is an ancient Gaelic festival that marks the beginning of harvest season, and occurs around the beginning of August, halfway between the Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox. It's been celebrated by the Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and more recently, neo-pagans or Wiccans all over the world. The name gives a nod to a lunar origin, as well as legends about the god Lugh, a skilled blacksmith and master of arts and sciences. Feasting, match-making, and contests of skill and strength are some of the ways Lughnasa has been celebrated. The English know this holiday as Lammas, which was adopted by Christianity and referred to "loaf day", celebrating the grain harvest and cutting the first sheaves of wheat. The first loaves of bread from this batch would be blessed at the local church, a "blessing of the first fruits."

Painting of medieval families around a bonfire.
An artist's illustration of a Samhain bonfire.

Samhain (pronounced "sow-in", also the modern Irish word for November), was celebrated by the ancient Celts, a time marking the halfway point between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice, although its origins stretch even farther back to prehistory. Over several days around Oct. 31st, people throughout what is now known as the British Isles gathered around bonfires and held what was, to them, a New Years Eve party- a time of the year to ready one's self to enter the dark days of winter. During this period of passage from light to dark, it was thought that "the veils between worlds become thin", and it was easier for spirits of the Otherworld to cross over into the ordinary world. This precursor to our modern day Halloween celebration included dressing in costumes to confuse the fairy folk, who were sometimes said to kidnap humans during this season.

Want to know more about how Samhain evolved into today's Halloween celebrations? Below is a video from the World History Encyclopedia that will fill you in on all the details, including the original reason why some Christian churches don't like the "spooky season":

Two nuns standing in a graveyard lit by candles.
Nuns visiting a graveyard for All Soul's Day.

painted icon illustrating Jesus and the saints.
Religious Icon illustrating All Saints Day.

All Soul's Day and All Saints Day were further evolutions of the original Samhain, in which early Christianity attempted to help encourage conversion to their faith by aligning Christian holidays and spiritual figures with Pagan themes. These have become stand alone holidays in their own right, which in addition to Samhain, are still celebrated in communities near and far.

Family dressed in Wizard of Oz costumes.
Today's Halloween ~ fun for the whole gang!

parade with floats and a marching band in New York City
The annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, NYC

And of course, there's the United States' Thanksgiving, with its turkey, pumpkin pie, and visits to relatives. But as we've seen, the concept of "Thanksgiving" is basically a harvest festival that's celebrated, in similar ways, all around the world. It's worth noting, though, that the first Thanksgiving celebration between the colonists of Plymouth Rock and the Wampanoag Tribe, back in 1621, owed a lot to the Tribal members who shared their skills and knowledge with the newcomers, to help them grow their first crops in North America.

Table with flowers, fruit, and images of deceased loved ones
Community Memorial Altar in Florence

At SASS, we believe that altar building, ritual, costume and performance are all vital parts of creative expression. There is a grand tradition over time, of community coming together to celebrate joyful times, as well as to acknowledge sorrowful times, and gain strength in remembering that we are all connected. The use of creative expression in community, when done well, is a powerful tool for healing and catharsis.

Our annual Memorial Altar project serves as a temporary, interactive art installation that's also a means of honoring those people and things which we have lost. It's non-denominational, free, and open to members of the public between Nov. 1st-5th to view and to use. You can read more about this year's Memorial Altar project, and learn about related Fall events and activities, on our Events Page.

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