October 11, 2012

Haunted Folklore (Part Two): Spectral Celebrations, by Kristina Wojtaszek

Editor's note: Here's part two of Kristina Wojtaszek's darkly (well) detailed series on macabre traditions all over the world. Honoring the dead is in the spotlight this time, and Kristina takes readers all over the nether world in this post. 

Kristina's short story, "Cinder," is one of 13 in an anthology recently published by World Weaver Press called Specter Spectacular: Thirteen Ghostly Tales. For a peek at Kristina's tale, which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, click here.

Several rows of "empty" chairs are placed before live performances in China during the Hungry Ghost Festival. These are reserved for the dead, who return through the open gates of the underworld--with an appetite. Some of the spirits have necks stretched thin and pine for food, as well as every other part of a life left behind. Once burned in offering, Joss paper (made from bamboo or rice) can be used as money or objects in the afterlife. Joss paper can be formed into everything from toothbrushes to sports cars. At the end of this month-long festival, lotus-shaped paper lanterns are set to float away, leading the ghosts back to their former realms.

Every culture, every country, has its stories and traditions gathered around ghosts. Even in the skeptical U.S. we take part in holidays that have pagan roots in paranormal legends. Halloween is in fact a remnant of the Gaelic harvest festival Samhain, celebrated on the last day of autumn, during which the world of spirits was believed to be closer to the physical earth than at any other time of year. Mexico's Day of the Dead is probably the most well known spectral celebration that persists today. The day before All Souls' Day (celebrated on November 2 by Roman Catholics) Mexican families gather together to welcome home their deceased relatives, who settle in the mountain pines in the guise of monarchs. Baron Samedi, the god of death in Haitian culture, receives offerings of spiced alcohol after loud music is played to awaken him during the holiday of Ghede, which also occurs in conjunction with All Souls' Day.

Saint Giles--His Bells, by Charles Altamont Doyle

Much like the Day of the Dead, the Obon or Bon Festival in Japan is a Buddhist holiday during which families assemble to clean and care for grave sites, and the spirits of the departed are expected at the family alter. During Pitru Paksha in India, prayers and food offerings are made to the last three generations of lost loved ones in order to help them cross over to heaven. Rather than butterflies, their departed are said to appear as crows to except their offerings. In Nepal, ghosts are lead to the afterlife by cows in the Gai Jatra. After this somber procession comes a time for merriment with costumes and satire. Rather than dressing up themselves, during Bolivia's Festival of Skulls it is the skulls that are decorated and given gifts, such as cigars tucked between their teeth. In return, the dead reward their relatives with blessings. Wrestling matches are often a part of the celebrations in Korea's Chuseok festival. Celebrated during the fall, offerings of the harvest are made to the dead in thanksgiving for a bountiful year. In Sicily, the children who pray for the souls of the departed leave their shoes out, hoping for sweets and toys left by the ‘muorti’ (the dead), helping them to hold onto memories of lost loved ones.

Even more universal than fear, it seems that celebration, dance and offerings are in order to honor the dead. As the medieval Dance of Death showed to celebrants each year, death is undeterred by belief, class or culture; death unites all.

Kristina Wojtaszek grew up as a woodland sprite and mermaid, playing around the shores of Lake Michigan. At any given time she could be found with live snakes tangled in her hair and worn out shoes filled with sand. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management as an excuse to spend her days lost in the woods with a book in hand. She currently resides in the high desert country of Wyoming with her husband and two small children. She is fascinated by fairy tales and fantasy and her favorite haunts are libraries and cemeteries. Follow her @KristinaWojtasz  or on her blog, Twice Upon a Time.


Teresa Robeson said...

Oh my gosh! Joss papers folded into different objects...how could I have forgotten that part of my youth? I spent many happy hours with my Amah and her rituals.

The Chinese also have a Obon type festival (Ching Ming Festival). When I lived in Hong Kong, I looked forward to it...always a fun outing to the grave sites with the entire extended family (it was never a sad event). And, oh!, the food. Pretty much every festival was associated with food which could explain why I'm foodie now. :}

Thanks for bringing back some wonderful childhood memories for me!

Lissa said...

These festivals all sound like comforting ways to remember and celebrate our loved ones. Thanks for sharing!