man and woman having dinner for the day of the dead

Celebrating and Feeding Deceased Ancestors

In almost every culture there is a belief that the dead should be honored, be it out of respect or a fear of ghostly retribution. In some cultures, there are holidays set aside specifically to commemorate the dead, which vary from reserved veneration to a killer party. Listed below are some of the major festivals around the world. Scroll down to see the recipes for the essential dishes from four of the major festivals: Mexican (Dia de Los Muertos), the Philippines (Undas), China (Hungry Ghost Festival), and Japan (Obon Festival).

Mexico- Dia de La Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that’s celebrated on the first two days of November. Its purpose is is to celebrate the lives of deceased relatives when their spirits are believed to return to this world. Although similar to Halloween and All-Saints/All-Souls days in time of year and focus on thy deceased, Dia de los Muertos’ is neither rooted in pagan or Christian beliefs. Its origins go back to an Aztec harvest celebration. While American Halloween sees spirits as as scary and something to be warded off, Day of the Dead is based on receiving the souls of dead relatives with joy and hospitality. It is not meant to be ghoulish, but rather a grand celebration of the deceased. Graves are swept and offerings (Ofrendas) of Pan de Muertos (Bread of Dead), foods the loved in life, marigold flowers, and photos of the deceased. The traditional foods of this joyous occasion always include breads and pastry, sugar skulls, and other foods the deceased favored in life.

Dia de Los Muertos Foods

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China – Hungry Ghost Festival

Food has always played a big role in Chinese holidays, but during the Hungry Ghost Festival, food takes center stage. Paper money (Joss) is burned at the beginning of the month-long holiday so that the spirits have money to spend while wandering the earth. By the 15th of the month they have mostly run out of money. That’s when the Hungry Ghost Festival occurs. The festival entertains them and provides them with food, supplies, and more money. The festival not only entertains them but wards off the evil intentions of disgruntled spirits by appeasing them with gifts and their favorite foods in life. For the orphaned dead, basic foods like rice, Mantau (steamed buns), fruits (pineapple means good luck), and sweets are left outside of the house. For ancestors, a large meal of their favorites is held on the 15th, the one day they are given a day to visit their living descendants. Their favorite dishes are served and 2-3 empty place settings are set out for them. Paper lanterns are lit and floated away to guide the spirits back to the afterlife. Besides the offerings placed outside the home to appease the wandering souls, the main feast often includes the following foods:

Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival Foods

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Japan – Obon

A traditional Buddhist festival, Obon commemorates lost ancestors, whose spirits are believed to come back during Obon to visit living relatives. The Obon festival is not solemn and often involves the Bon Odon dance to welcome the spirits as well asfireworks, games, and feast on traditional foods. It is also one of the few times you can find Japanese street vendors serving up popular Obon foods.

Japanese Obon Festival Foods

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Philippines – Undas

Undas, the cousin of All-Saints Day, is a somber occasion that is balanced by the joy of meeting deceased relatives. Filipino families prepare food and bring it cemeteries to share along with sweeping and cleaning the gravestones. They also have a huge feast with the whole family, relatives, and friends consisting with the special dishes that their loved ones used to enjoy, which are also made to bring to their gravestones.

Filipino Undas Foods

Other International Celebrations of the Dead:

All Saints Day and All Souls Day (Christians and Catholics)

Considered a national holiday in many countries, All Saints’ Day (November 1st) has roots in early Catholicism as a festival to honor unknown saints and martyrs. The day after this—All Souls’ Day—is a more solemn holiday during which people commemorate the souls that are now in Purgatory. The prayers of the living are said to help speed the burning of minor sins in purgatory and to help sanctify souls for the entrance into Heaven.

Halloween (United States)

October 31, also called All Hallows Eve, has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. People light bonfires, don scary costumes, and visit neighborhood homes to receive “soul cakes” for the promise of praying for the dead. Not offering the visitors a treat would expose them to the tricks of malevolent ghosts. Brought to America during the mass immigration of Irish and Scottish immigrants, who brought All Hallow Eve traditions with them. In America, All Hallows Eve soon became Halloween, soul cakes became candy, and “soul caking” became trick or treating. This major holiday in America is now measured in billions ($6 billion in candy sales, $500 million on pet costumes, etc.), pumpkin carving, and dressing in costumes.

Pchum Ben (Cambodia)

This holiday is celebrated every year in Cambodia between mid-September and mid-October. Officially a 14 day festival, foods are prepared in the early morning to bring to pagodas for Buddhist monks to offer to the souls of the deceased. White is worn (Cambodian color of mourning) to remember ancestors. During the 15 days of Pchum Ben, the line between the living and the dead is thought to be at its thinnest. Cambodians believe that during Pchum Ben, spirits come back in search of living relatives, hoping to atone for sins from their past life.

Gai Jatra (Nepal)

This “festival of the cows” is one of the most popular holidays in Nepal and is held each year in August or September. Families who lost a relative in the last year lead a cow (or a child dressed as a cow, if no cows are around) down the village street in a procession. The cow is one of the most revered animals in Hinduism, and participants believe that the animal will help lead recently deceased family members into the afterlife. 

Chuseok (Korea)

Often compared to American Thanksgiving, Chuseok is Korea’s largest national holiday, and is celebrated throughout both North and South Korea. Marked with dancing, games and food, Chuseok is also a time for Koreans to honor their ancestors. The holiday is celebrated sometime in September or October. Traditionally, the celebration coincides with the fall harvest. During the three-day festival, the living give thanks to the dead for their part in providing bountiful crops. Families celebrate Chuseok by sharing the harvest with others, so the holiday is food-centric, with food prepared from the harvest and traditional Korean rice cakes are eaten. Koreans also visit and clean the graves of their ancestors.

Bread for the Dead (Switzerland, Austria, Ecuador)

In Switzerland (Bones of the Dead or Swiss Dry Bone) cookies are treats that are shaped as a pile of bones and are intended to offer to dead ancestors. In Austria, grandchildren are given “Allerheiligenstriezel,” a braided yeast bread, to commemorate the women who cut off their braided hair as a sign of mourning. In Ecuador (Guaguas de Pan) is a small bread shaped in the form of a baby and decorated with piped icing.

Famadihana (Madagascar)

Also called “Turning of the Bones,” this celebration is based on the belief that the spirit of the dead can’t fully go to the land of the ancestors until the body is completely decomposed, bodies are dug up every 7 years to be rewrapped in silk and carried around the tomb to live music before being buried again.

Qingming Festival (China)

Ancestor Day is a Chinese national holiday celebrated in April where families pay their respect by visiting the tombs of their ancestors and sweeping them clean.

Pitru Paksha (India)

This two week tradition is when offerings of food and prayers are made to all the deceased. If the proper rituals and offerings are accepted by ancestors, wealth, health, and salvation are bestowed.

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