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Festivals and Holidays

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Autumn Festivals: How the World Honors the Dead

A huge part of why I travel is just to experience something different.

I am always craving the unfamiliar. I want to be surprised by how different life, beliefs, and values can be across the hundreds of cultures around the world.

But on the other side of the coin, I also love finding things that remain consistent. It is interesting to see what is universal across all or most of humankind.

Halloween, which is very American in its modern celebrations (despite originating in Europe), is actually very similar to many other autumn festivals around the world in that it holds a very common theme: death.

When you take away the silliness and child-centered traditions, Halloweens true purpose has always been about honoring those who died before us. This theme is tied to autumn months all around the world.

Where can you see examples?

Mexico – Day of the Dead

The most well-known example is Dia de los Muertos, which translates to the Day of the Dead. It is celebrated widely in Mexico and other Hispanic cultures. It is a three-day event. On the first day, it is believed that spirits will return to earth to be close to their loved ones. On the second day, families visit the graves of their family members to leave flowers and fruit. The third and final day is giant party.

India – Fortnight of Ancestors

In India, 16 days are devoted to the deceased for “Pitru Paksha” around the time of the autumn equinox. According to Hindi legend, a spirit does not fully crossover into heaven until three more generations pass away. The three generations of spirits still waiting in limbo can visit their descendants during the Fortnight of Ancestors.

Hong Kong – Double Ninth Festival

The legend behind this festival is a bit dark, and, like many ancient myths from oral traditions, the story has several versions. The basic tale is of a man that is warned of an impending danger to his village and flees to a mountaintop. When he comes back down, he finds all his neighbors dead. The festival began as a way to honor those who lost their lives that day, and now it honors all who have passed on. Families in Hong Kong will visit the cemetery to clean their family’s tombs and leave flowers and small offerings.

Italy – All Saint’s Day

What we know as Halloween today descended from this holiday which honors Christian saints. It is celebrated in all Catholic communities, and many believe it borrows ancient Celtic traditions from the pagan holiday, Samhain.

Nepal – Gai Jatra

Rather than honoring all their ancestors, this festival is primarily for remembering those who passed away in just the last year. Cows, sacred creatures and the national animal, are lined up and paraded down the street in an effort to bring joy and luck to grieving families. Food is shared among the entire community.

Madagascar – Famadihana

We’ll end on this tradition, which is a bit strange from my western perspective. Once a year, the people of Madagascar retrieve the corpses of their ancestors from the family crypts. Their remains are wrapped in cloth and brought to a large party where they are paraded around and danced with.

As much as I love the spooky fun of Halloween, I can’t help but compare it to these festivals around the world that seem to have a deeper meaning. Do you think something is missing from our western culture that could be fulfilled with a holiday like these? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

 

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Mid-Autumn Festival: A Chinese Celebration of Gratitude

We spent this past week in China and caught the beginning of the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations. This is the second largest Chinese holiday and you’ll find decorations and traditional foods everywhere if you’re in the country, especially round red lanterns strung up in the trees and very dense cakes called moon cakes.

This time marks the fall harvest and, like many cultures around the world, this is a time for expressing gratitude and enjoying time with family.

This festival has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years, with its first written records coming from the Shang dynasty. It is always celebrated during the full moon of the 8th month of the lunar calendar.

In ancient times, the Mid-Autumn Festival also honored the gods or mythological figures honored in each region, such as gods of the moon, the local mountains or the great dragon who was believed to control the weather – therefore creating a bountiful harvest season.

A Mid-Autumn Festival Story

My favorite parts of any holiday are the myths and stories behind them.

In China, where stories were told orally for generations, the myths tend to vary per region. Here is one version:

It was believed in ancient days that there were once 10 suns that took turns lighting the sky. As long as only one sun rose at a time, Earth was safe and warm.

But one year, all 10 suns rose at once, which was understandably a disaster.

A very talented archer, Hou Yi, saved all of humanity was shooting down 9 suns, leaving us with only the one we have today.

In reward for his quick thinking, Hou Yi was given an elixir that would grant him immortality.

But Hou Yi loved his wife very much, and he did not want immortality if it meant she would eventually die and he’d have the rest of eternity without her.

A student of Hou Yi knew about this elixir and wanted it for himself. One night, when he knew Hou Yi was away, he broke into his house to steal the vial.

Hou Yi’s wife tried to fight him off, but in the end she took the elixir herself to keep it from the disloyal student.

She could no longer live among mortals and was carried up into the heavens. Hoping to stay as close to Hou Yi as possible, she chose the moon as her new home.

After Hou Yi discovered what had happened, he would often spend time looking at the moon and thinking of his wife. During the full moon, he’d leave out her favorite foods and drinks in honor of her. Others felt compassion for him, and began the same practices, which spread throughout the country.

An Alternative Version

The first story was very sweet, but not all depict Hou Yi in the same positive light.

Another version says he was crowned king after shooting down the nine suns, and later given the immortality elixir.

Unfortunately, he was a prideful and cruel king, and his wife knew he should never be made immortal. To protect the country, she took the elixir to keep it from him.

She flew to the moon, and the mad king died of anger. The people celebrate the wife and the moon as their heroine.

How to celebrate:
Share a mooncake with family or friends. This symbolizes unity and a strong bond between loved ones.
Have a glass of cassia wine. It is the traditional drink, and a favorite of the archer’s wife.
Watch a dragon dance. These are common performances around China during this time of year.
Pray for love. Whether you are hoping to begin a new relationship or preserve an existing one, the time is right for this kind of intention.

I’ve experienced two Mid-Autumn Festivals in China now. Have you ever been? Which story do you prefer – the romantic one or the one with a darker twist?

 

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Qixi Festival: The Chinese Valentine’s Day

One fun part about living as an expat is encountering your favorite familiar traditions with a foreign twist. It has always interested me to see what is universally honored around the world, and also to note the incredible variety in how different cultures can celebrate the same themes.

My first experience with this was two years ago in China, when a Chinese co-worker dropped some chocolate on my desk in August and told me “Happy Chinese Valentine’s Day!”

It was actually Qixi Festival, a Chinese holiday that also celebrates love and romance. It’s held on the seventh day of the seventh month on their lunar calendar. The name translates to “Evening of Sevens.”

This year it’s coming up soon on August 28th.

A Love Story

Although there are several versions of the myth behind this festival, they all center around a couple who were forbidden to be together, forcibly separated, but who find a way back to each other once a year for one night – on the seventh day of the seventh month.

In the most common version of the story, the girl is a fairy and the youngest daughter of the Goddess of Heaven. She often finds herself bored with with her celestial life, and she sneaks off to Earth to have a little fun.

During one of her trips, she meets a mortal boy – a cow herder – and falls in love. They marry secretly, even have a couple of children, and the fairy manages to keep her double life hidden for years.

But eventually the Goddess of Heaven discovers her daughter’s secret. She is forced to return to the heavenly realm, never to come back to Earth again, separated from her children and husband.

Some versions of this story detail how the cow herder tries return to his wife, even by disguising himself with the hide of his dead ox. But ultimately, he cannot reach her.

It is a romantic story, but it is also heartbreaking. The only moment of joy comes briefly once a year, during the Qixi Festival, when legend says a flock of magpies intervene for the lovers. They create a bridge so the two can reunite for one night, but only one night.

Traditional Celebrations

So how exactly is Qixi Festival celebrated?

Needlework is practiced, as this was a talent of the wife in the story. Competitions are often held among unmarried women.

Prayers are offered to the couple, usually for a good and happy marriage.

Offerings of paper, fruits, flowers, or tea are also made at local temples.

Divination is sometimes practiced to predict a future spouse or the happiness of a marriage.

Women might wear a special face powder believed to help them mirror the beauty of the fairy wife.

People will search for constellations in the sky, keeping an eye out for the bridge of magpies reuniting the separated lovers.

Rain is considered a bad omen. If a storm comes, it is believed that the river has washed away the bridge of magpies before the lovers could come together. The rain symbolizes the overflowing river and the tears of the heartbroken couple.

The biggest difference between the western Valentine’s Day and the Chinese Qixi Festival is that Qixi is primarily for unmarried people. Newlyweds couples only celebrate one final time, to say goodbye to the mythological couple.

Have you ever celebrated Qixi Festival in China? How did you think it compared to Valentine’s Day at home? Do you prefer one over the other?

 

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Celebrating Summer Solstice Around Europe

It’s summer!

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the days have become hot, long, and stormy. The Summer Solstice is around the corner, and many cultures are celebrating it, especially around Europe.

The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year. For months the sun has been setting later and later, and it will be reaching its peak on the 21st of June.

Americans might see the Summer Solstice as an ancient pre-Christian holiday without much relevance today, but you don’t actually have to travel through time to see it for yourself. You can still find it celebrated in various ways in certain countries.

Here are some of those places, and what they’ll be doing:

Greece – Summer Solstice is the traditional New Year’s Day in Greece, and it also used to mark the beginning of the summer Olympic sports. Some Greek locals still take this time to make an annual trek up Mount Olympus.

Russia – The summer festival in Russia lasts three months (May, June, and July), but the largest celebrations always fall on the Solstice. Festivities include ballet, opera, and many other cultural performances. People also stop wearing colors of winter (black or gray), and start wearing bright colors to the celebrate the season.

Latvia – You won’t get a lot of sleep celebrating the Solstice in Latvia. It is traditional to stay awake the entire night before. Friends enjoy each other’s company by a fire. After the sun rises, they’ll collect a bit of morning dew to wipe on their faces. This ritualistic “cleansing” is said to bring luck. During the day, a great feast is held with many traditional foods.

Austria – Fireworks, bonfires and boat rides mark this summer holiday in Austria. Parties take place on land with a bonfire, but many people also board river boats to see fireworks displays as they drift down the river.

Sweden – Solstice is a time for costumes and maypoles during the day, and a giant bonfire at night. Parties continue on for many hours, until the wee hours of the next morning.

Denmark – You’ll also find bonfires around Denmark, with the added tradition of throwing in a witch made of fabric to burn. The witch symbolizes several things: winter, misfortune, and bad spirits.

Romania – The Summer Solstice is one of Romania’s oldest festivals, and it is celebrated with a rain dance to encourage good harvests for the rest of the year.

Iceland – In this part of the world, the summer solstice is about 72 straight hours of sunlight. To celebrate 3 days without any darkness, there is a huge music festival.

England – No one really knows the origin or purpose of Stonehenge, but it does line up perfectly with the sunrise on the summer solstice. For this reason, it is a popular gathering spot for people to celebrate the holiday, usually with a lot of dancing and drumming.

Portugal – In some countries, the old pagan roots of the Solstice are hidden by Christian traditions. For example, Portugal marks it as the birthday of John the Baptist, and it’s celebrated with street festivals and fireworks.

What kind of Summer Solstice celebrations have you witnessed abroad? Are there any fun traditions that we’ve missed? Share below!

 

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